By Mike Rudd
Everyone has had at least one experience in their life that was so unexpected, so different from anything that had happened to them up to that point in their lives, they just didn’t know what to do. A lot of times, these experiences end up being great stories to share during dinner parties or group gatherings. For instance, I was living in Korea, and had just left a restaurant from lunch with a few friends. We were walking down the street to the bus stop (public transportation is great in Korea), when a man on a moped jumps the curb and parks his scooter right on the sidewalk, blocking our path. It wasn’t unusual for us, as Americans, to receive more attention than the normal pedestrian, but whenever it was this much attention, there were usually ill feelings involved. So, as this “scooterist” hopped off his bike and opened the storage compartment under the seat, my flight or fight instinct started revving up. But, instead, this man pulled out five Slammer Stuffed Animals (the ones that say different phrases when you throw or hit them against the wall), and gave them to us. He hopped back on his bike, yelled, “Enjoy!” and was off. There were three important questions that needed answering, besides the obvious, “What the….” What is the proper protocol, who else needs to know, and what is the best way to tell others; all of these important questions need an answer when something unexpected comes up.
But what if the unexpected isn’t something as mild as receiving free talking stuffed animals? What if the man had jumped the curb because he didn’t like American’s and a physical altercation ensued? How would I answer those three questions while trying to defend myself and those around me, both from an assaulter and the people who would see the fight and assume I had started it? A recent, actual event that illustrates the importance of being prepared for unexpected hard trials is the sexual harassment accusations and scandal at Penn State University. No one at Penn State imagined that they would receive this much national attention for something so unseemly and damning. That much attention for success in academics or athletics would be something that they all hoped and wished for, but they never even imagined that something so heinous could take place on their campus. And they weren’t prepared. Mar Brownstein, President of The Brownstein Group and a columnist with AdAge Daily, commented, “Administrators had to scramble to hire a PR firm to handle crisis communication. I mean, c’mon folks. This is Reputation Management 101. No plan in place? No PR agency on standby? The result was that no one was in charge of Penn State’s message.” And Penn State had plenty of time to get a message in place, to answer those three questions. They knew about the accusations and controversy long before the national media caught wind of it. But because no one was managing their message, they stumbled and scraped their way through the media storm, firing iconic football Coach Joe Paterno and University President Graham Spanier along the way to have some type of public display that “something” was being done.
Penn state seems to have realized their errors and is conducting better PR to help their tainted image. Brownstein explains the importance of doing this before an issue arises this way; “Managing a crisis effectively does not make the guilty innocent. It doesn’t make the victims less sad. It just allows the public to receive well-thought-out messages, in a timely manner, via credible channels. People can then absorb the news in an intelligent, rational context. And good people don’t get swept up in a wave of emotions.” Crisis management won’t make the Penn State story seem like talking stuffed animals, but it can help to keep you from banging your head against awall.