A Lesson in Self-Delusion at Penn State

It is always sad when otherwise respected individuals reveal their shallow lack of knowledge and personal bias at the top of their lungs. It is even more so when I, personally, get dragged into the debate.

It is no secret that I feel the Penn State board of trustees bungled the Sandusky crisis from start to, well, I can’t say “finish” because the errors the board created has allowed the crisis to continue seemingly ad infinitum. What should have been resolved in weeks or months has dragged on for going on three years now and there is no end in sight. I spoke out about the board’s many crisis management blunders in my recent book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, and in a number of articles and media interviews since. Some of my comments were (accurately) quoted by Penn State Professor Emeritus Charles Snow in an opinion piece he wrote that appeared in the Centre Daily Times on June 10, 2014. (You can read it here.)

That piece also was highly critical of the board, which led to a spirited exchange of e-mails, initiated by a somewhat perturbed Paul H. Silvis, board vice chairman, and Prof. Snow. So far so good.

Except Mr. Silvis took the occasion in writing to challenge one of my opinions (maybe more, but his writing is somewhat muddled) in a highly baffling and somewhat insulting manner. He accused me of relying on “conjecture” and the high-treason crime of having ideas that were not “vetted.” Vetted by whom, Mr. Silvis? By you? By other members of the board? I have spoken to board members and read some of their first-hand accounts of the chaos that took place that fateful night in November 2011, so exactly who between us is expressing “conjecture?”

Let’s consider the facts, rather than Mr. Silvis’ fondness for engaging in one-sided shouting matches.

His actual accusation read, “Stephen (sic) Fink relied on conjecture an (sic) none of his ideas were vetted.” (Gosh, you’d think someone in such a vaunted position as the vice chair of the Penn State board of trustees would take the time to have someone proof his correspondence, or at least spell my name correctly. I guess his writing is not vetted. But I digress). What does his charge actually mean? In context, it is possible he is referring to my criticism of the rapidity with which the board accepted the highly controversial Freeh report, without having time to fully digest it or even to ask a single question about it. Moreover, I found it unconscionable that a competent board would have allowed Freeh to hold his own grandstanding press conference in the manner he did. 

In Prof. Snow’s article he wrote, “Crisis management expert Steven Fink said, ‘The generally accepted method for this procedure would have called for Freeh to conduct an independent investigation and then submit to the board, or a special subcommittee of the board, a draft of his report before it was finalized and released to the public. This would have given the board a chance to review the draft findings and ask questions for clarification, so as to avoid being blindsided. It would also have given the board a chance to flag or correct any perceived inaccuracies in the report. This is a common courtesy. None of this was done, which was a huge flaw in the board’s competence level to not insist on it.’”

Mr. Freeh concluded his one-hour press conference at approximately 11:00 a.m. on July 12, 2012 in Philadelphia, while the board was meeting in Scranton, PA, more than 125 miles away. Yet only four or so hours later, the board issued a statement accepting the 267-page report without any challenge or questions at all. The second sentence of the statement reads: “The Board of Trustees…accepts full responsibility for the failures that occurred.”

Who accepts responsibility, let alone “full responsibility,” for serious allegations without reading the charges and discussing the implications of such a mea culpa? It was that blanket acceptance of “full responsibility” – no ifs, ands or buts – that directly led the NCAA to impose the most draconian sanctions ever handed down to a school, and without even bothering to conduct its own, independent investigation by its own committee on infractions, as mandated by the sport authority’s own by-laws. This inconvenient speed bump was completely disregarded by the NCAA in its mad rush to inflict punishment, and the board never even threw a flag on the play.

None of this is conjecture; it is fact. So, I fail to see what Mr. Silvis objects to in my fact-based comments. 

Moreover, the high-handed way Mr. Freeh released the information to the media and the world made it difficult, if not well-nigh impossible, for the board to question anything, publicly or privately. To do so would have given the perception that the board was trying to dodge some level of responsibility. And as I have said many times over the years, in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. And that tenet is at the heart of the matter, which Mr. Silvis and his fellow board members still don’t get.

For in managing the reality of a crisis, it is crucial to understand that no matter how “correct” or “justified” you may think a decision is, if the public’s perception is the polar opposite, you have screwed up. At the very least you have failed in the important art of crisis communications – making a persuasive case in support of your actions, and one that rallies the public to your side. I submit that no one on the board was skilled in high-stakes crisis management, which led to the crisis getting out of hand. Look no further than the botched late-night firing of Joe Paterno. Here’s a crisis management aphorism that you can take to the bank: Anytime a decision you make leads to rioting in the streets by out-of-control mobs, property being destroyed, cars being overturned and fires being set, you have made the wrong decision.

Mr. Silvis can send all of the accusatory emails he wants trying to justify the board’s actions, but if the crisis had been properly managed in 2011, we wouldn’t still be discussing it in 2014. If he doesn’t get that there’s no point trying to persuade him otherwise.

I have been practicing crisis management and crisis communications for 35 years, ever since I served on the crisis management team during the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The firm I started soon after I left the Pennsylvania governor’s office, Lexicon Communications Corp., is the nation’s oldest crisis management and crisis communications firm, and we have advised businesses, publicly-traded and privately-held, colleges and universities, and even branches of government, foreign and domestic, on all manner of crisis management issues. Many of those crises were far worse than what occurred at Penn State. And in those years, we have been involved in a number of crises that required independent investigators (including retired FBI agents) to look into a variety of sensitive matters. The report methodology I outlined in my book, which was quoted in Prof. Snow’s article, is the accepted practice.

I must also point out the obvious hypocrisy in Mr. Silvis’ argument: he never contacted me to ask how I formed my opinions, so he stands guilty of the crime of which he accuses me. But I would be pleased to discuss this with him in detail at any mutually convenient time, in a spirit of amity toward a greater understanding of how best to protect a cherished institution.

Mr. Silvis is a very successful business owner; he is not a crisis manager. And there is a vast difference between successfully managing a business and successfully managing a crisis. Nowhere was this point more vividly driven home than in seeing how otherwise well-intentioned, successful businessmen and women serving on the Penn State board woefully mishandled one of the biggest crises ever to hit a college in the United States, and seriously marred the sterling reputation of an excellent school in the process. 

Mr. Silvis can rail against the wind all he wants but the fact – not conjecture – is that the Penn State board gets a failing grade for its pitiful mismanagement of the crisis. You have my word on it.