Every Saturday during football season, when there’s a home game, 105,000 spectators pack Beaver Stadium in sleepy State College, Pennsylvania. Faces are flush with anticipation, the band is playing a peppy tune, and everyone is happy in Happy Valley. A few minutes before kick-off, something truly amazing happens. The 50,000 fans on one side of the stadium yell out “We Are!” to which the other side of the stadium yells back, “Penn State!” And this goes on for several rounds, each round the voices get louder and more passionate until you have goose bumps and you’re smiling from ear to ear. It’s incredible.
And now, this prestigious state university with the highest number of living alumni is in crisis. And words have failed. They failed President Graham Spanier when, after the news broke about the grand jury report that a former defensive coach for the Nittany Lion football program had sexually abused at least eight children, he released a statement defending his top two administrators named in the investigation. Words failed Coach Joe Paterno when he decided to get out in front of the Board of Trustees and told the press that he would retire at the end of the season. As if it were his decision to make.
Perhaps the most difficult time to be a public speaker is in the midst of a crisis. If there were a more serious word for “crisis” I would use it to describe the situation at Penn State, but words fail. Words failed the students who rioted after hearing the news of JoePa’s firing. But the student who made the sign above did a nice job of summing up the current position of Penn State students.
There are a few notes that any speaker would want to hit during a crisis. The first is honesty. The second is authenticity. The third is to make every effort to appeal to your [fill in the word: employees, customers, students, parishioners] rather than speaking from a defensive, CYA mindset. And finally, be careful of the passive voice. Perhaps the most notable in recent memory is when Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor Joseph Ellis, who lied to his students about serving in Vietnam said, “Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made.” Words failed.
I have it on good authority that the newly named Penn State President Rod Erickson is an intelligent and ethical leader. Let’s hope he finds the right words over the coming months as things get worse before they get better.