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November 9, 2011 4:22 pm

PR Legacy of Joe Paterno: Witness to Child Molestation

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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Joe Paterno on the sideline during warmups.

We in the Jewish community had a nightmarish summer when eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky was discovered dead and Levi Aron was charged with the brutal murder. The heinous crime changed the religious Jewish “brand” in many ways, both inside and outside the community, as people realized that no one was safe.

Today, the college football world faces a crisis – and a legendary football coach Joe Paterno has taken the bull by the horns this morning, and in a widely reported press conference stated: “I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.”

As a marketer and as a parent I wonder if Penn State will do the right thing and fire him immediately. In this crisis PR situation, one would hope Penn State will say:

“You are fired. We will not tolerate our employees being aware of child molestation and doing nothing about it. You may be a winner at coaching, but your conduct as one who educates youth on values is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate such people educating our athletes, or others. Mr. Paterno, Would you want your children and grandchildren educated by someone who does nothing about child molesters?” Mr. Paterno may not be guilty in the court of law, but he’s certainly guilty in the court of public opinion.

Aren’t parents out there who watch students cheering and supporting Paterno in front of his home sickened by such displays? These kids were molested in part because Paterno and others did not act upon their knowledge.

This reputational crisis Penn State now faces is one which affects the entire Penn State brand – including the value of Penn State degrees, recruitment for future Penn State classes, donations from alumni and potential academic awards. This is only the beginning of Penn State’s PR crisis.

One wonders how many parents will be comfortable having their children attend and be educated at an institution where university presidents, “hero” coaches, and students not only accept, but celebrate those who witness – and do nothing – about disgusting, illegal behavior.

I recently visited Disneyland with my young daughter – and was shocked to see a ride featuring Michael Jackson. I forbade her from riding, because Jackson is a child molester (albeit never convicted in court.) One wonders what’s more important – being a world renowned musician, great football coach, or a decent human being.

Penn State needs to decide if its brand is about winning football games or speaking out against child molesters. As a brand proposition it’s an easy decision.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR, a Top 25 PR Agency and has a best-selling PR book “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations” an Amazon best-selling Public Relations book available for purchase here.

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