The appalling crisis at Pennsylvania State University is not, at heart, "a public relations catastrophe," as a New York Times writer called it, but a true relational crisis, a failure of empathy in the most basic terms. Empathy is defined as "identification with another's situation, feelings, and motives" or, simply, as walking in another's shoes. Former football coach Joe Paterno and ousted university president Graham Spanier surely understand that now, but too late.
They and others at Penn State didn't walk in the shoes of the evident young victims of retired coach Jerry Sandusky. Whatever institutional factors were at work, they were mislead by them. Basic morality and kindredness lost out, and that can happen in any institutional setting. When it does, it becomes a crisis in human, not public, relations. Pay heed — we're organizations of people with obligations to other human beings, young or older, not simply to priorities. The question should always be, "What's really happening here?"
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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