Penn State trustees agree on campaign to restore school's image

Posted: August 28, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Pennsylvania State University is going on the offensive to restore its battered image.

After months of reacting to one devastating development after another in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, university trustees Sunday charted a proactive strategy to rebuild faith in the campus.

The approach, outlined on the final day of the board's annual retreat, includes implementing several recommendations offered last month in an internal report on the university's handling of the crisis, as well as launching a media campaign to emphasize Penn State's achievements.

"We have been playing defense for the last five months. The Sandusky trial, the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions have all kept us on the back foot," said Richard Edelman, the board's public relations consultant. "Now is the time to pivot."

Edelman described an expansive media strategy Sunday that included recruiting alumni and students to evangelize on the university's behalf, lobbying often-quoted experts on corporate governance and college athletics in the hope of influencing news coverage, and continuing a commitment to transparency.

To start off, the campaign will consist primarily of on-campus posters, use of social media, and a variety of efforts at football games to emphasize Penn State's academic and service accomplishments.

Though Edelman raised the specter of a national good-will advertising campaign, he advised trustees against deploying such a tool in the short term.

"A BP kind of solution is not appropriate at Penn State," he said, referring to the oil company's multibillion-dollar ad campaign in the wake of the devastating Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. "There will be more criticism for us if we try to advertise our way out of this crisis."

Criticism is one thing Penn State's board has grown accustomed to in the two months since a Centre County Court jury convicted Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, of molesting 10 boys, many on campus.

Last month, a university-backed investigation led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh accused top administrators - including former president Graham B. Spanier and the late head football coach Joe Paterno - of burying early allegations against Sandusky, fearing bad publicity.

Within weeks, the NCAA announced an unprecedented package of sanctions that included a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and the voiding of all team wins from 1998 to 2011. The university's accreditation has also come under threat.

And on Friday, a 19-year-old Centre County man filed the first of what is expected to be a wave of lawsuits against the college from accusers who testified at Sandusky's trial.

"It has been a challenge for us to change the dialogue," said trustee Mark Dambly, a resident of Delaware County. That challenge has even extended into the board's own ranks.

The board appeared deeply divided as trustees convened in State College on Saturday for the start of their retreat. Some hoped to accept and move past the setbacks of the past year, while others felt Penn State as a whole had been unfairly maligned for the acts of a few and urged fighting back.

But Sunday's discussions took on a more constructive tone. Trustee committees reported on steps taken to implement the recommendations offered in Freeh's report last month.

Within weeks, the board is expected to hire an outside firm to monitor its progress and a compliance officer to ensure all departments are following state and federal laws.

A new crisis management plan is likely to be completed within the next week, trustees said.

The group also began talks on the search for a new university president.

Current college head Rodney Erickson, who took over after Spanier's resignation last year, is expected to leave his post at the end of his contract in 2014.

Board members hope to begin weeding through applicants for his replacement in January and start interviewing finalists by next fall.

Trustee Keith Eckel, a Clarks Summit farmer, found the future-focused tone of Sunday's meeting refreshing.

"There have been a lot of comments about us being divided," he said. "That's not what I witnessed today. I witnessed a united board."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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