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Why Joe Paterno and Herman Cain Should Have Had A Crisis PR Plans


There are numerous scandal topics that are sure to derail the good reputation of nearly any person or organization. From theft to lying, drug use to domestic violence, bigotry and the list goes on.

But if there were a granddaddy of them all, arguably it may be sexual misconduct – which reputationally is possibly the most lethal accusation leveled at any person or organization.

Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno

In the past few weeks, the American public has watched as sexual misconduct accusations may have ended both the presidential hopes of Republican front-runner Herman Cain; and now, seemingly, the career of Joe Paterno, the winningest and perhaps most respected football coach in college history.

Interestingly enough, each incident seemingly shares a commonality beyond sexual misconduct. Neither Penn State University nor the Herman Cain Campaign had a strategy in place to effectively manage their respective crisis, either as a communication issue, or in the case of Penn State, as a criminal issue.

At Penn State, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the longtime right hand to Paterno, has been charged with some 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys who he worked with through the Second Mile foundation that was established to help needy children.

Reportedly, school officials including Paterno learned of possible issues as early as 2002, three years after Sandusky had left the school as a coach but was still spending time on campus. Paterno was informed by then graduate assistant Mike McQueary, and reported it to his superior, athletics director Tim Curley.

Herman Cain

Herman Cain

From all accounts, however, it seems no one took any action, and today you reportedly have at least eight emotionally damaged boys, two Penn State officials including Curley facing criminal charges, Paterno and the university president were officially relieved of their duties last night, and the coach has also hired PR counsel for ongoing support.

Clearly, there was a lack of institutional oversight in the case. That goes without saying. But from a communications standpoint, the university has so poorly managed the flow of information and there can only be one answer. They did not have, nor execute, a crisis communications plan that would have helped school officials better manage the processes around a scandal that will subsequently have long-term implications on the institution’s reputation.

Cain’s case is surprisingly similar in terms of how poorly communications has been managed.

At least four women are now claiming that Cain, while leading the National Restaurant Association, inappropriately propositioned or touched them. And while Cain’s chief of staff was busy making one of the worst guy with a mustache smoking a cigarette campaign commercials ever, his boss was flip-flopping his stories, denying, and saying he didn’t even recall that at least one of the women was given a settlement from the NRA that included one year’s salary.

What a trainwreck. Welcome to the big leagues Mr. Cain, where it doesn’t matter whether it’s other Republican challengers or future Democratic foes that are leaking this out. Blame is simply a stall tactic and if you are going to run for President of the United States, everything is on the table and you had better have a plan in place to manage the message – which clearly, Cain did not.

Whether sexual misconduct is indeed the granddaddy of accusations or not, Cain and Paterno are testament to the reality that it’s taken down nearly every person or organization ever associated with it.

Even President Bill Clinton is referred to as a “Teflon” president for dodging the kill shot from the Monica Lewinsky-Paula Jones-Gennifer Flowers sexual hijinks. But the thing is, he didn’t escape unscathed. Those scandals will always taint our memories of his presidency.

Joe Paterno has now entered retirement and Herman Cain will both soon be joining him — Cain’s due to his action, and Paterno due inaction. And while each case obviously veers well beyond just communications planning, it was a lack thereof that catapulted them to a level that could have been avoided and greatly limited the damage.

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