Today I got a notice that the bill for the second-semester tuition for my daughter at Penn State is due.  As I read that email, I was reminded of what a colossal failure and tragedy this scandal is on so many levels, least of which is how the university is managing any form of crisis communications with key constituents such as parents, donors, alums and the students themselves.   To my knowledge, parents have received just two emails since the crisis began, the first of which came nearly a week after the crisis began.  What I remember from the email from the interim President was that he is going to appoint an ethics officer and will have an open door for people to raise concerns.   The second was a defensive missive refuting a concern of a parent whose son told her that professors has been instructed not to talk to students.  In fact, it was the opposite.

Crisis Communications That Make Matters Worse

To be sure, the University has many serious things to tackle now and is overwhelmed.  But they need to remember to communicate with key audiences who are critical to helping the University move forward.    As I read the email bill, I started to question whether this investment in my daughter’s education at Penn State was still a sound one.    Will they ever be able to come out this?  How are students faring with the barrage of media and the realization that what perhaps they thought they knew about PSU may not be true at all?  Is the University team up to the challenge that lies ahead?  And does the lack of communication on this issue mean that the University lacks the infrastructure to properly inform key audiences if there were a natural disaster or some other serious event?

If I’m asking these questions, so must many others.  Having been involved in a number of crisis situations as a communications professional, I know how a bunker mentality can set in and how it feels like everyone is against you.  I also understand that any communication to parents or donors is essentially a public communication and that one has to do so thoughtfully.

But ignoring some of your closest constituents does the University a disservice.  There does not appear to be any leadership. No one seems to be in charge.  Penn State lacks a public face because those who would play that role have been fired.   It’s easy those of us outside to judge, but how can we have any other impression when we don’t get any information.  An important lesson for communicators and others is that when a crisis hits,  it isn’t just the media you have to reach out to but your “internal” audiences as well.