The last 10 days have obviously tarnished the Penn State brand, and left advertisers, sponsors, and others closely associated with the university and its football program with some tough questions. Boiled down, it amounts to this: How far should you go to distance yourself from the crisis?
Fallout has already been heavy, so much so that Penn State has hired Ketchum to help the university navigate through the mess. Yet this may be one of those cases — and there are many — when the big PR firm is brought in too late.
“Penn St. has been incredibly tarnished, it’s a huge hit to that brand,” says Paul Pierson, a partner at branding and design firm Carbone Smolan Agency. “Some of the most damaging things to the brand have already done, like the outpouring of support from the Penn State students for Paterno after the firing,” he adds. “That made it look as though the school cared more about football than ethics.”
Now the university is apparently considering removing its stadium’s statue of Paterno, who was head coach of the Nittany Lions football team from 1966-2011. (A columnist for CBSSports.com, @greggdoyelcbs, Tweeted that Penn St. professors have told students that the statue will come down over Thanksgiving). Paterno’s name has already been removed from the Big Ten’s championship trophy. And all traces of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — the subject of the child abuse accusations — are hurriedly being erased. (The picture at left shows artist Michael Pilato painted over the portion of his mural that showed Sandusky).
Keep in mind Paterno and the football team were once the university’s best marketing tool. Just ask Nike, which has continued to stand by the university and its former coach. It has long been Penn State’s footwear and uniform supplier.