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The Worst Public Relations Disaster Ever

We are all familiar with the tragedy that is Penn State, and as guilt, self-doubt and a generation of shame shrouds the school and community, brands are distancing themselves from the once storied American dream that was Penn State football.

This is a soul-crushing story on every level and writing about it makes me feel creepy. But it is a story that affects our industry, because let’s face it: for Penn State and every brand affiliated with the school, this is the worst public relations disaster ever.

This week Nike announced it will remove Joe Paterno’s name from the child-care center named after him in Beaverton, Oregon. Sherwin-Williams and Cars.com dropped their connection with the school months ago.

Much of the public is clamoring for the entire dismantling of Penn State’s football program and the immediate removal of Joe Paterno’s statue from the stadium grounds. This PR calamity is both international and domestic as the world will forever view Penn State with a new perspective and alumni quietly move Penn State from the top to the bottom of their resumés.

PR experts must deal with all varieties of negative emotions and embarrassing situations. Shame, however, is a force unlike any other, and sometimes there is simply nothing one can do but to let shame run its course. Shame is healthy. It’s there for a reason. And it’s all over Penn State.

The only PR strategy Penn State has is to keep moving. To keep going. To make itself an example  and to use what will it has left to right its wrongs where possible. The school shouldn’t place blame on others or just a few, because this was a collective crime and society won’t buy it. And neither will sponsors.

The jury of public relations has spoken. Penn State is up to Penn State now.

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