Crisis Management Lessons from the Penn State Press Conference

Author: Shari Schmidt

It was painful to watch the Penn State University Board of Trustees at last night’s press conference. From the awkward set-up to the clipped
responses, it was a case study in how not to handle a crisis. How can you avoid making the same mistakes? Here are three lessons to learn.

1. Put your most prepared person at the microphone. The entire press conference lasted about 20 minutes, yet the spokesperson continually looked at his watch. He seemed frustrated at times that “We feel this is in the best interest of the University” wasn’t blindly accepted as the answer to many questions. He did stay on message, but it was his body language and tone of voice that needed some coaching.

2. Show some compassion. Perhaps the most interesting part of the press conference was the board’s inability to appear connected. If you’re going to fire a long-time, beloved member of your institution, you need to have the information and compassion to back-up the action. Most of the answers were along the lines of “we looked at the information available at this time and thought this was in the best interest of the university.” Sometimes leaders have to make hard decisions, but it always helps to show compassion while delivering the news. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Still, there is no reason to look like you’re rushing to judgment when you don’t have all the facts and sounding like you’re not sure you’ve made the right decision.

3. Look at the big picture. This event was broadcast live, so the picture was as important as the message. What did we see? Multiple older, grey-haired white men in grey suits. Since the time of the Kennedy/Nixon debates, public relations experts have known that grey, rumpled suits don’t show well on television. It wasn’t until the camera took a long shot that we saw a person of color and a couple of females sitting with the group. Were they on the board? We didn’t know, but if they were, they shouldn’t have been seated on the fringe.

Also, make sure whoever is sitting behind the speaker has some media training. A man in the second row reacted to a few questions by contorting his face. It wasn’t often, but he was right behind the speaker so it was obvious. Several men in the back row started making comments to each other after certain questions were asked. It was clear they weren’t pleased with the questions, but they shouldn’t have shown it during the press conference. Most of the time, they all looked bored. It didn’t give the impression of a thoughtful, engaged group who just made a difficult decision.

Your crisis might not receive the same world-wide visibility of the Penn State situation, but it will be just as important to your business. Now is
the time to learn from this situation so you don’t make the same mistakes.

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