Nonprofit Branding: Sandusky. Child Abuse. Penn State – Lessons From a Toxic Soup

Forget about Komen. The Sandusky/Penn State tragedy is probably the best recent example of malfeasance in nonprofit branding.

In 2009 Penn State got in another branding scrape that was reported in this blog.

Put the two incidents together. In one, an incredibly lax approach to protecting the brand allowed  a distasteful incident to become an international media frenzy and institutional branding disaster. In the earlier and somewhat amusing fracas,  Penn State engaged in overzealous bullying of a tiny rural high school – and was right to do so.

There are lessons here. A bit of weirdness.  And some irony, too. Read on….

Three years ago Penn State logo police threatened to sue a tiny high school in Buna, Texas. Why? The school’s logo portrayed its Cougar mascot in a manner that the Penn State administration felt was too similar to the university’s famed Nittany Lion logo. Rumor has it that Penn State even forced Mary Lou (Buna High School class of 2009 and runner-up Homecoming Queen) to have the local tattoo artist modify the Buna Cougar on her butt. The rumor remains unconfirmed.

With that level of administrative attention to brand protection as background, consider the following………

Recap: Over more than a decade accusations about Jerry Sandusky worked their way up the Penn State food chain. Malfunctioning in sequence, several administrators decided to downplay, ignore or suppress allegations about child abuse on campus.

Players: In each cycle the accusation landed on the desk of one or more of this group of university luminaries:university president Spanier…. vice president Schultz….athletic director Curly…. and beloved coach Joe Paterno.

These are people with primary responsibility for the reputation of the university, the reputation of its football program – and the reputation of its chemistry department.

They are now known in brand management circles as Larry, Moe, Curley and Coach.

Double Standard: The above reference to the chemistry department points directly to the heart of the matter.If a credible eyewitness had accused a Penn State chemistry professor of on-campus child abuse, three things would have happened.

First, that professor would immediately have been placed on paid leave and barred from campus.

Second, that validity of the accusation would be resolved in the only relevant forum – the criminal justice system.

Third, the Penn State brand would have been protected.

Timeline: The first accusation about Sandusky was made to university officials in 1999. Over a decade later, in 2012, this guy was convicted of 45 counts of child molestation against 8 children. 45 incidents!  8 kids!

Some of those counts occurred on-campus between the first accusation in 1999 ….and conviction in 2012.

During those twelve years, instead of acting aggressively to protect potential future victims, the administration acted to protect the reputation of its head coach and football empire – thereby leaving those kids exposed to Sandusky.

Principle: Due process is a fundamental hallmark of a university’s personnel policies. It does not give safe harbor to a chemist accused of a felony. Or to a coach.

Sure, the chemist or the coach are innocent until proven guilty. But shouldn’t they remain off campus until proven innocent?

We agree the university administration is not the body that proves either guilt or innocence. But isn’t it the body that must enforce full disclosure to the authorities and demand a diligent investigation about possible child abuse on its property by one of its associates?

Context: In the Penn State community Coach Paterno was a demi-god who was scheduled to retire after the 2012 season – a dozen years after the first accusation about his then-assistant coach, Sandusky. Paterno’s stellar football program was the pride of the university – and of the state. Events indicate that senior administrators considered Paterno, and his program, to be untouchable.

Options: The administration was in a tough position. It  had two choices.

1 – Immunize Penn State and its football program from Sandusky by aggressively pushing the issue into the criminal justice system each time an allegation was made. Instead of being about the university, public discussion would have then been about Sandusky’s guilt or innocence.There would have been little impact on the institution’s brand, on the reputation of its football program or on the legacy of its beloved coach.

2 – Foolishly attempt to avoid public embarrassment for coach Paterno and the football program by choosing the path of avoidance. This is the choice administrators made. Repeatedly.

Results: This should have been a story of child molestation by a former employee and full-time nut. By sidestepping its responsibility to the brand, the administration actually allowed the eventual narrative to build pressure. Finally it burst forth in a public scandal at one of the nation’s great institutions. For months this story ricocheted through international print and broadcast media – and was a primary topic of social media!

A feckless administration turned the story of one rotten guy into a story that wrapped around the university, its football program, its coach, its leadership, its mission, its fans, its alumni.

Penn State entered Branding Hell, led by administrative weasels who forgot how public perception is formed and how responsible, ethical leaders must act. This is another example of a basic nonprofit principle: the public must not entrust its institutions to officials who are unable to reciprocally trust the public that empowered them!

Lesson: Sooner or later every nonprofit, including yours, will find its brand is under fire by claims that may or may not be true. Criminal behavior is really unlikely, but you’ll surely have an incident of bad judgment, bad luck, bad management, outright stupidity, board conflict, program misfire or some other embarrassment.

The scale will be smaller. The principles remain inviolable. Remember Penn State! Don’t flinch! Step up, ‘fess up. Then make up.

By accepting the pain of immediate public exposure, you avoid the much greater pain that will accrue down the road if you resort to unresponsive weaseling. Here is the strategy to follow:  How to Survive a Media Feeding Frenzy.

Irony: Penn State  has 44,000 students.  There are  387  Buna Cougars, grades 9 through 12. The Nittany Lion football uniforms cost more than the entire annual budget of Buna High School.

But in this case of brand infringement, the university’s aggression was actually warranted, its hyper-sensitivity was actually appropriate and its threat of a lawsuit was actually justified.

If you want to understand the legal principles behind this branding reality, check this two-part story about Buna, Mary Lou’s tattoo, the infamous Ptomaine Palace Restaurant and important realities nonprofit marketing folks need to understand: It’s Your Brand. But, as Penn State Demonstrates, You Don’t Control It!

This is your takeaway: Each nonprofit brand is an asset of incredible value – and stunning fragility. That includes your brand, Penn State’s, and the brand of its Nittany Lions football team.

When a brand is threatened, there are 47 ways to respond stupidly. Our experience (Janice edits and approves each blog post, so you know she agrees) indicates there is usually only one way to respond constructively. Do not cover up. Do not mislead. Do not ignore. Step up to the plate immediately and forthrightly. Protect the brand!

The pain you cause or endure at the front end will be much less than the pain you avoid at the back-end.

If he were alive today, we’re sure Coach Paterno would agree.


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