Rebuilding the Penn State Brand

The child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University devastated one the most respected collegiate brands in the U.S. Students, alumni and the board of trustees have taken some key steps (and some missteps) in the monumental process of rebuilding the university’s brand, but the long-term impact is uncertain.

First, some perspective: The crime and moral breakdown at Penn State is first and foremost a tragedy for the boys involved and their families. Any discussion beyond that is peripheral and not meant to distract from that fact.

Penn State athletes compete under the motto “Success with Honor”. It is known for “clean” recruiting, with none of the major violations of NCAA recruiting and student-athlete rules committed by many other big-time college sports programs. Even when the “Success” part of the equation was missing and Penn State suffered losing football seasons, it was a little easier for fans to accept knowing the school was playing by the rules.

The university is also highly regarded for a number of other positives including students who do great charity work. A few weekends a year, members of THON are at intersections in towns across the state collecting money for pediatric cancer research. According to its website, THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world with more than 15,000 student volunteers and it has raised more than $78 million since 1973 to benefit cancer research.

Crime and Punishment

With this storied history, the entire Penn State community (and the country) was stunned when a former assistant coach was charged with molesting young boys from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s and two high-level administrators were charged with covering up one of the crimes. In the ensuing days, allegations surfaced that the head football coach, another assistant coach and the university president knew about one of the crimes and did not do enough to follow through.

The board of trustees moved quickly. Within a week of the initial arrest, all those who allegedly knew of the crimes were fired, placed on administrative leave or forced to resign. On the night of the head coach’s firing about 1,000 students rioted, which only further tarnished the university’s image.

“We need a change and a new direction,” John Surma, vice chairman of the board, said at the press conference announcing the head coach’s firing. I would argue the university needs less of a new direction and more of getting the train back on the track. Prior to the scandal its brand reputation for honesty and integrity was incredibly strong and it needs to work on recapturing that brand position.

I think the board of trustees made a mistake in this regard by establishing its own commission to investigate what happened and how it can be prevented in the future. No matter how honest the commission’s report, there will be a feeling that all the facts were not disclosed in order to protect the university. Lawmakers in the state are considering establishing a panel to investigate the crimes and this may provide a more unbiased view of what went wrong.

The Right Moves

On the positive side, students and alumni quickly put the focus where it belongs:
• A candle-light vigil, attended by 10,000 students, centered on the victims of child abuse and those victimized by the former assistant head coach.
• At the last home game of the season, the visiting Nebraska team, and current and former Penn State players gathered at midfield before the game for a prayer and moment of silence for the victims of child abuse.
• Alumni raised almost $425,000 (as of yesterday morning) to support the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

There are some important lessons from the Penn State scandal:
1. A brand that took decades to build and nurture can be severely damaged in a short period by just a handful of people.
2. Once you have the facts about a critical situation, move quickly to help the victims and take action regarding those who were involved.
3. Sometimes you must take actions that are unpopular internally for the good of the brand.

The Penn State story is still unfolding. What trustees, the administration and students do over the days, weeks and months to come—including how they continue to reach out to the victims and their families, and how openly and honestly they communicate as facts become known—will be critical to the ultimate impact on the Penn State brand. Even with all the right moves, it will take years to determine if they are successful.

© 2011-2017 Bill Fellows, Top-of-Mind Branding All Rights Reserved