I don’t know about you, but unless it’s a surprise party or a dramatic twist at the end of a great beach read, I’m not much for surprises. It seems I’m not alone.
Just ask the students, parents, faculty, staff, donors, trustees and community-at-large surrounding Happy Valley how they feel about the “surprises” revealed in last week’s Freeh report that detailed Penn State’s handling, or mishandling, of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. But Penn State’s not alone, either. On Friday, JPMorgan Chase & Co. said that its traders “may have tried to hide the losses from a soured bet that has embarrassed the bank and cost it almost $6 billion, far more than its chief executive first suggested.” I’m sure the shareholders are thrilled. Two stories from just yesterday’s newspaper … you know there will be more tomorrow.
Bad news is hard to stomach. Bad news 14 years later, as in the case of Penn State, is unbearable. The instinct to protect one’s own reputation – whether an individual’s or an institution’s – by withholding information is an instinct that should be challenged, repeatedly.
We often work with clients who find themselves in the midst of difficult situations. Time and again, our counsel is for those organizations to be truthful and to be first and fast with the truth so that they will have the best chance of controlling or at least contributing to the dialogue. That’s far better than having other sources leak information that you’re left to respond to, particularly when the leak contradicts an original statement or non-statement, as the case may be. Being in front of the story, disclosing as much as you can all in one shot and living through a temporarily painful time period is also far better than allowing the story to develop on its own because you’ve decided to bury your organizational head in the sand. Before you know it, the bad news has turned into a multi-day series and you’re on the ropes.
The short-sightedness of former Penn State officials was in avoiding negative publicity that would surely have flamed from being forthright about the allegations against Sandusky some 14 years ago. The difference is, had they done the right thing then, the negative headlines would have died quickly and the lives of so many children would have been protected. Instead, the inferno rages today with victim’s lives and careers in ruin.
Nobody likes surprises.