Avoiding Bad Publicity: An Oxymoron

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  • July 24, 2012
  • Starr Million Baker

“In an attempt to avoid bad publicity…” said the ESPN newscaster last night as he described the cover-up at Penn State that began almost a decade and a half ago, and the subsequent unprecedented sanctions handed down by the NCAA yesterday morning. “In an attempt to avoid bad publicity” a pedofile was not turned over to the police. “In an attempt to avoid bad publicity” many more young boys had their lives destroyed by sexual abuse. And now, that attempt to avoid bad publicity has come back around to bite Penn State itself in the ass big time with a fallen hero, a $60 million fine, a football program in shambles, and a reputation that will never ever be the same.

All of that, because the leaders of an organization thought they wouldn’t be able to survive the negative publicity that would have come from having an assistant coach – an executive of their team – accused of (and in hindsight, arrested and prosecuted for) heinous acts against children. Besides the obvious rule of “do the right thing” no matter what (seriously, people), what would have been so terrible about “Penn State today reported assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to the police for suspected abuse of children and has relieved him of his duties at the university, effective immediately.” I could see that actually turning into stories about how they did the right thing, not the “bad publicity” they were so afraid of.* Instead, it’s become what it is today – a sickening example of how not to do it (“it” being not just PR, but life – of course). Think about it this way: if you have to hide it because you don’t think you can handle the outcome, 1) you’re doing the wrong thing, and 2) you’ve now got two big things that are going to come back to haunt you (the first thing, and the lie).

Next time you think about any attempt to avoid bad publicity, think again.

*I am aware that blaming the cover-up on the fear of bad publicity is just part of the story today, and possibly even the part that is being used to make these people not appear as the true monsters they possibly may be. In essence, this could be a continuation of the cover-up. But I thought it worth noting this line of reasoning for the purposes of the industry I serve.