Ever since Richard Nixon crashed and burned during Watergate almost 40 years ago, we’ve heard the damage-control platitude that it’s the cover-up that gets you. A corollary to this is the abracadabra chestnut that if Nixon had just “fessed up” right away, he could have dodged the whole mess.
Such notions are charming in a high school PR class kind of way, but they have little utility in real-world firestorms, which involve highly motivated adversaries and other capricious forces that determine who and what gets burned or blown up.
As our culture contemplates the Penn State disaster with an eye toward preventing such horrors in the future, we would do well to take a critical look at the thinking behind such crises and cover-ups, and why it is ultimately harmful, if not immoral, to keep trafficking in outdated crisis-management clichés.
It is precisely because cover-ups can, in fact, “work” on a tactical level, at least in the short term, that they can lay the foundation for monstrous behaviour.
My objective is to red-flag some uncomfortable lessons of three decades in the peculiar field of damage control with an eye toward protecting the vulnerable as well as the institutions that should serve as our society’s pillars.
To be absolutely clear: My aim is not to conflate the discussion of crisis cover-ups with a winking endorsement of vile behaviour, so please be patient.
Cover-up instinct and strategy
Cover-ups are both instinctive and strategic. As Adam and Eve reacted to their newly discovered nakedness by — literally — covering up, when individuals, corporations and institutions face exposure, they, too, attempt to conceal their wickedness or whatever reflects poorly upon them.
As John Dos Passos wrote, “The mind cannot support moral chaos for long. Men are under as strong a compulsion to invent an ethical setting for their behaviour as spiders are to weave themselves webs.”
Put differently, we long to be accepted for the wonderful souls we often are not. Even criminals have an instinctive need to see themselves as being decent, thus the loathing of child molesters by convicted murderers.
My experience with clients in crisis validates that self-deception is the rule not the exception, which is why so many decision makers behave in ways that will likely hurt them and others in the long haul.
Cover-ups are also strategic. Those doing the misdirection at Penn State were rational in their belief that adverse publicity would destroy careers, reputations and potentially even their institution.
And, yes, in their triage, some of them wilfully placed the protection of self and institutional interest over the welfare of the children who were so cold-bloodedly attacked.
So, in a hellish intersection of instinctive and strategic drives, a cover-up was born.
Sandusky’s suspicious sunset
In 1998 when the first allegations of child molestation were leveled, Jerry Sandusky was generally regarded as one of the best — if not the best — defensive coordinators in the country. A recent ESPN story called him “the architect of the 1982 and 1986 defenses that were driving forces behind Penn State’s national championships.”
Sandusky was the mastermind of squads that had unparalleled success, and he helped churn out a few dozen top-notch NFL prospects, earning Penn State the moniker “Linebacker U.”
It is curious that someone like Sandusky retires at the height of his excellence (1999), but then more curiously, he vanishes from the national radar. Sandusky, despite his extraordinary on-the-field success, was never mentioned for any job openings.
This is strange. Someone with Sandusky’s resume doesn’t just vanish from the national sports conversation. He would have been on a short list of potential candidates for high-profile head coaching and defensive coordinator jobs. He would have been routinely reported as one of several candidates being considered by X, Y, Z University when there was a major job opening.
This is what sports reporters do: speculate. They speculate about head coach openings, trades, free agents, draft picks. ESPN’s website has a whole section devoted to this kind of “reporting”: it’s called “rumours Central” and it is subscription-based. Fans love it.
Sandusky was heir-apparent to coaching icon Joe Paterno until he quietly “retired” from Penn State. Since he had the pedigree to be in line for that job, he would have been a major find for other schools from “mid majors” to some of college football’s most storied programs.
But he wasn’t, which suggests either that other coaches beyond Penn State either knew something, got a “bad vibe,” however vague, when they inquired, or didn’t want to know anything.
Symbiosis versus conspiracy
As Louis Freeh’s recent report makes abundantly clear, the cover-up to push Sandusky off-stage was, at the Penn State level, a conspiracy. But its apathetic reception in the broader college football community for more than a dozen years may be better explained by symbiosis — the unspoken intuition that everyone’s mutual needs are best met by not turning over the rotting tree stump of Sandusky’s retirement.
This is what cover-ups count on: Nothing to see here, folks.
It is also likely that many in college football could not have imagined that whatever “bad vibe” they may have gotten about Sandusky would turn out to be a veritable one-man industry of horrors.
College football may be held accountable for a corrupt value system and a failure of imagination, but not a failure to act on clear warnings.
The brass at Penn State are a different story.
One of the more interesting features of the Penn State scandal is that the subsequent revelations actually made the principals look worse, not better. In other cases — think the Duke Lacrosse team, Michael Jackson, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Toyota sudden acceleration crisis — later rounds of coverage introduced an exculpatory alternative narrative.
Said Freeh of his 267-page report, eight months after the scandal broke, “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. … The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
If you read between Freeh’s lines, there is a sickening subtext: The cover-up worked for a long time, and Penn State and its football program enjoyed 14 robust years.
But a balloon payment on the mortgage of Penn State’s reputation would eventually come due.
The unsavory dividends of cover-ups
The next time you hear a journalist or PR hack wax romantic about how if Nixon had “just said ‘I screwed up,'” Watergate would have receded, ask them what their basis is for believing in such a magical algorithm (where damage control is essentially painless).
Fact is, had Nixon “fessed up” right away, he would have been run out of Washington by torch-bearing hordes, impeached and likely imprisoned. His enemies would not have gently dabbed their napkins at the corners of their mouths, satisfied. The volcano of institutionalized skullduggery that occurred on Nixon’s watch, and often at his direction, would have blown sky high.
After all, what drives cover-ups is often not the scandal du jour, but the vast reservoir of ugliness that lies beneath it. As with Watergate, Penn State’s administrators weren’t trying to cover up a single report about Sandusky, they were trying to cover up a veritable one-man assembly line of savage abuse.
The central conundrum of crisis management is that doing the right thing morally does not necessarily save the patient, and is why things are covered up in the first place.
Besides, how can we know for sure that cover-ups, as an absolute rule, fail? Aren’t non-disclosure settlements with disgruntled parties (perfectly legal) cover-ups? And don’t at least some of them work?
As we have learned since the financial meltdown, lots of people profited while concealing the truth about the true state of major financial institutions. Indeed, Paterno, we just found out, negotiated a lucrative retirement contract in the quiet months before the Sandusky scandal broke. And what about the use of steroids in baseball that filled stadium seats for so long?
In the same spirit that Nixon would never have survived a confession, Penn State, had administrators called the authorities on Sandusky in the 1990s, would likely have suffered for years from investigative reports, lawsuits, lost recruiting and applications, a decimated football program, forfeited contributions and obliterated morale.
If Penn State could cauterize the initial molehill, the logic went, perhaps the mountain beneath it would remain unexposed. Put differently, the school made a bet that Sandusky could be isolated, that he might be chastened, that nobody would talk, that if and when “it” blew up, it wouldn’t be as bad as it ended up being.
So administrators did the morally wrong thing for a shot at saving what they most prized: their football juggernaut.
The economics of doing wrong
There is a concept in economics known as “hyperbolic discounting.” It basically means that people place a premium on short-term tangible benefits, including an avoidance of pain, rather than the prospect of some vague benefit that doesn’t instantly accrue to the decision makers.
This is why a corporation doesn’t blink about throwing an extra $20 million into fun, tangible advertising, but balks at spending $50,000 to plan ahead for a bet-the-company disaster.
Think Hurricane Katrina. We hear about hurricanes all the time, but we tend to survive them pretty well — especially since they usually seem to happen to somebody else. Sure, the next one may be bad, but it also may not be, so decisions are made to build a shiny new public park as opposed to reinforcing levees that nobody can see in order to hedge against a disaster that nobody can imagine.
Just kick the can down the road and hope you, personally, are retired from the game when the music stops and some other poor nimrod ends up without a chair.
This, folks, is the dark reality of the crisis-management enterprise — not the bromides about transparency, not the self-anesthetizing donations to charity and not the cross-assertions of implied goodness that powerful people and institutions love to marinate in.
One of the ironies of the Penn State scandal is that it is so bad that the steps that have and must be taken are actually rather straightforward.
1. Change the leadership. In progress.
2. Prosecute the perpetrators. In progress.
3. Conduct a blue-ribbon investigation and make changes. The Freeh report sets this in motion.
4. Reckon with the victims. Lawsuits, investigations, apologies and settlements are the next chapter in this affair.
Then there is the sluggish variable of time — time to accomplish the necessary work listed above, time to rebuild the football program, time to suffer and pay the price for a tactically commonplace but ethically repugnant damage-control campaign.
Penance is painful. People get hurt and don’t survive. And contrary to the sales hype of the PR industry, drive-thru redemption only happens in cases where the sins are relatively simple, self-inflicted and self-contained.
But when you throw in the variables of a powerful institution, the systematic prosecution of a campaign of subterfuge and damage to the most vulnerable cohort of our society, Oprah-fied notions of easy redemption are elusive.
Can Penn State recover? Of course. Destruction and resurrection are the American enterprise. But for Penn State, not to mention potential Penn States, we had better examine the pathology of crisis management under a microscope that’s clear, not rose-tinted.
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm, and the author of books including the historical novel The Devil Himself.
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