Penn State's brand crisis

November 9, 2011

A good reputation must never be taken for granted. Periodic self-examination and independent third party research among key constituencies are ways to make sure that unseen problems are exposed, evaluated, and acted upon.

Under the direction of Coach Joe Paterno, Penn State University’s football program has long been considered one of the best in the business. Paterno started a “Grand Experiment” in 1966, stressing scholastic achievement and top moral values, which resulted in high graduation rates for his players. Penn State was often called a class-act while other universities struggled with their image and, consequently, with recruiting the best players.

Paterno’s experiment didn’t sacrifice athletic excellence. Penn State football teams won two national championships (1982, 1986). Paterno’s Nittany Lions became a valuable national brand. During Paterno’s tenure, Beaver Stadium expanded from 29,000 to 108,000 seats, an indication of the power of Penn State’s brand.

The entire football program, as well as Penn State’s prestige, was shattered this week by child sex-abuse charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The tragedy that has befallen the university is incalculable in every aspect. Coach Paterno has already resigned. No doubt the football program will suffer for years to come, and the impact on endowments and alumni donations will certainly be felt.

In Joe’s own words, “I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.... This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

What more he could have done remains to be seen, but the one thing we know from studying corporate reputation for many decades is that it takes years to build the reputation of an organization but only an instant to destroy it.

A good reputation must never be taken for granted. Periodic self-examination and independent third party research among key constituencies are ways to make sure that unseen problems are exposed, evaluated, and acted upon.

I’ll personally miss JoePa — a great coach for a great team at a great university.

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