Penn State hires PR firms to address scandal
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What's the cost of rebuilding public relations amid an ongoing crisis? In State College, it's $208,000 a month.
Penn State University has hired one of the biggest public relations firms in the world and a well-known local name to steer through the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and any other legal crisis that may arise in the next year.
Edelman, a worldwide public relations firm with more than 4,200 employees, will lead communications on all legal matters. La Torre Communications, a boutique firm in Harrisburg, will work under the larger firm to improve interactions with state and local media, said David La Torre, principal at La Torre. Penn State's Office of University Relations will continue to lead day-to-day media matters.
"The university has established an ongoing commitment to being more transparent and accessible to the community," Mr. La Torre said. "We've been directed that all information related to the substantive issues that we're facing is shared in a timely manner."
The school's board of trustees has been criticized for conducting too much business in secrecy and for not recognizing a crisis until it exploded in the news media with the November arrest of Mr. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, on child sex assault charges
Many in the public relations field have lauded the search for outside help, which was conducted earlier this month when four firms vied for the contract in a competitive bidding process.
"Anytime that you're in a situation of this magnitude with as many constituents as Penn State has, getting an outside expert is not only advisable, it's essential," said Paul O'Rourke, director of public relations, content and social media at Pipitone Group of Pittsburgh, an integrated marketing and communications firm.
"Many times organizations are by their very nature insular and you need some outside third party not beholden to the organization to give you their honest opinion," he said.
Mr. La Torre also handles public relations for Valley Forge Casino Resort, where Penn State board member Ira Lubert is chairman. He said Edelman tapped him to team up on the bid and that to his knowledge his involvement in the casino did not influence his ability to secure the university job.
At least two other public relations firms have been brought on by the university since November, including Ketchum and Kekst Public Relations.
The high price tag of the 12-month Edelman deal is well below the $5.3 million in mostly internal investigation and crisis communication costs Penn State had paid as of Feb. 29.
"It certainly is a significant amount of money, but it is a significant challenge ahead," said Jack Horner, president of Hornercom of Philadelphia. "The hours that will need to be dedicated are extensive."
Mr. Horner said the partnership between the local firm, with area expertise, and the multinational company, with a barrage of experience, will work to the university's advantage.
"You'll get this grand broad perspective and strategy and you'll get La Torre to say here's what will work in Pennsylvania," he said.
But Maribeth Roman Schmidt, founding partner and president of Vault Communications in Philadelphia, said she believes the university needs more than a new public relations campaign to regain trust.
"Until the board publicly addresses their accountability in the unjust way that Joe Paterno was dismissed, it doesn't matter what public relations firm is working with them," she said.
Ms. Roman Schmidt is a spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a grass-roots group representing 5,000 alumni.
The group is advocating to replace members of the board of trustees they think are responsible for the "lack of due process" in the decision to fire Paterno as head coach Nov. 9, she said.
"You can tap dance all you want to one side, but it's all disingenuous until you address the matter that has not been resolved," she said. "The rhetoric that has really taken on a life of its own is that he could have done more, he should have done more, and I think more of us out there think the board should have done more."
As an alum, Ms. Roman Schmidt hopes the new arrangement can lead the university down the right path.
"There's nothing more that we want than positive news about Penn State to be flooding the media," she said. "If Edelman can help to achieve that, we're all for it."
First Published April 26, 2012 12:00 am