Crisis communications lessons from Penn State and Rick Perry

There were two stories in the news last week that made it difficult to turn away from the TV: the sex abuse scandal involving Penn State and Governor Perry losing track of this thoughts during the GOP presidential debate.

While the Rick Perry story doesn’t come close to the gravity of the Penn State tragedy, how these two events were handled with the media illustrates the difference between good and bad crisis management.

After the Penn State story broke, the university failed to act quickly to address the issue. Despite knowing for at least three years that this could happen, Penn State bungled the handling of the crisis. It took two days for the president of the university to speak publicly. When he did, he conveyed little sympathy for the victims and full support for two of the men arrested. It was another three days before Coach Paterno and the university president were fired by the board of trustees.

Compare this to how Rick Perry handled his mind freeze during the GOP debate.  He turned what could have been a campaign-ending performance into a positive. Perry quickly went on television, beginning immediately after the debate, appearing on every morning news program and late night show that would take him. He was self-deprecating and led with the message: If you’re electing a debater in chief, don’t elect me. He then conveyed his message and discussed his accomplishments. Before long, many news anchors were sympathizing with Perry and recalling their own incidents when they were at a loss for words.

The lesson for PR pros: during a crisis, talk to the media and your audiences immediately, acknowledge the problem, show your human side and get on point with your message.

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