Penn State has hired another public relations team to help the university with its communications as it deals with the ongoing backlash the Jerry Sandusky scandal has unleashed.
The university announced the hiring of Edelman and La Torre Communications on Wednesday. The two companies will be paid $208,000 a month for the contract’s 12 months, for a total of $2.5 million.
They’re the latest public relations firms the university has brought on board since the scandal broke as part of the efforts to be more transparent, officials said.
According to the university, the main goals are to improve communications with students, alumni, faculty and staff, parents, local communities and media.
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The companies will also handle media inquiries in upcoming litigation. The university is the subject of at least two civil lawsuits by alleged victims of Sandusky.
“Retaining these communications firms puts us more firmly on the path toward accountability, openness and preserving our reputation as one of the world’s leading research universities,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in an announcement about the move.
Erickson and the board of trustees have pledged greater openness.
As of the end of February, Penn State had spent $7.6 million on expenses arising from the Sandusky scandal. That includes $5.3 million for the investigation trustees commissioned and related public relations.
David La Torre, founder of the Harrisburg-based company that bears his name, said he and staff from Edelman will work to improve how Penn State interacts with media, including local and state outlets, and to be more responsive. He said they will be working with the university administration.
“Penn State is beginning the next phase of what is really an ongoing commitment to being more transparent and accessible to the community,” La Torre said. “Our team has been directed to ensure all appropriate information related to substantive issues this university is facing is shared in a timely manner with students, alumni, faculty and staff, parents and the local community.”
Edelman is a family-owned business based in New York and Chicago that has more than 4,200 employees. La Torre served under former Gov. Tom Ridge and was press secretary to Gov. Mark Schweiker.
According to the announcement, the university hired the companies after a competitive bid that was presented earlier this month. Further information about those bids and that process was not available.
La Torre said legal expenses and other costs not covered by the university’s general liability and directors and officers insurance policies “are expected to be funded from interest revenues related to loans made by the university to its self-support units.”
Penn State has worked with several other public relations firms and legal advisers since November, when the state filed charges against Sandusky and two Penn State administrators and trustees voted to terminate Joe Paterno as coach.
Those companies include Kekst Public Relations and Ketchum Public Relations. Attorney Lanny Davis has been acting as legal adviser to trustees. La Torre said that will continue, and Kekst will be engaged as needed.
The university’s announcement Wednesday was met with doubt by some.
Jayne Miller, an investigative television reporter from Baltimore who is running for one of the alumni board seats, said there needs to be a cultural change that encourages people to communicate.
“Any attempt this university makes to be more open and more transparent is welcome, but this really has to start from within the organization,” she said. “Just contracting out and spending 200 grand a month for an external public relations firm doesn’t change the culture. It’s the culture of the institution that has to change.”
Maribeth Schmidt, spokeswoman for the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which has been sharply critical of the board, said that until trustees address the way they dismissed Paterno, it won’t matter what public relations firm they hire.
“The reported retainer sounds astronomical, and no matter the significant scope of work, will only be viewed skeptically as throwing good money after bad,” Schmidt said.
“It is absolutely imperative to clear the air of the board’s past five months’ of contradictions, untruths and self-serving, defensive and ill-timed rhetoric which has continued to paint the university in a horribly negative light. Until that happens, not even P.T. Barnum would have success in promoting all of the positive news associated with Penn State’s world-class academics, research, athletics and philanthropy.”
Jury selection for Sandusky’s trial on charges of child sex abuse is slated to start June 5. The former Penn State football defensive coordinator maintains his innocence.
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.