Ad campaigns, sit-downs with national news outlets and showcasing the work of star faculty and students are all part of the public relations blitz Penn State is undertaking as the one-year anniversary of the scandal that shook the university approaches.
Penn State leaders, with help from the public relations company they’ve hired, are trying to shift the focus off the Jerry Sandusky scandal and onto the stories that usually generate positive spin — the work of students and faculty, outreach and campus life.
“There are lots of great things happening at the university,” said Mark Dambly, trustee and chairman of the board’s outreach committee. “Our goal is to begin to talk about those things and to find a way to make it interesting enough for people to listen to it.”
To do that the university signed a $2.5 million contract with public relations firm Edelman. Among the methods being employed are a “Faces of Penn State” campaign that features accomplishments of Penn State employees, students, alumni and community members and having positive stories each week.
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Gene Grabowski, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, said as with any scandal, stakeholders in an institution have to get it behind them if they're going to be able to move forward with their mission. He said the university has to get out of a “static position.”
He said Penn State might try 15 different approaches and not all of them will work, but university leaders shouldn’t be criticized for trying.
“They need to be trying some new and different things. Some of their tactics will work and some will not. But the strategy is sound,” he said. “The strategy seems to be to emphasize the positive things the university is doing and try to get these cases behind them as fast as possible.”
That hasn’t sat well with all Penn Staters, some of whom feel trustees are trying to sweep the issue away at the expense of finding out the truth.
Dambly defended the board’s approach, saying there’s new leadership at Penn State, where the goal is educating 90,000 students.
“I don’t think we’re trying to sugar coat anything. I think we’re trying to move forward,” he said.
Another method being used is reaching out to potential “endorsers.”
Mike Holloway, with Edelman, described that when the trustees met in September. Endorsers could be professionals in education, policy or business. The idea is to connect with them and educate them about what Penn State is doing, he said.
“We want to find people who are often quoted in the media who are experts, either experts in education, policy or governance, so they can be educated by us and then we can activate them on our behalf in the media,” he said.
Grabowski called reaching out to third-party experts a standard communications tactic. He said it isn’t propaganda.
“Just by reaching out to these third parties, you are showing them you are making an effort,” he said.