HBO’s ‘Paterno’ Offers Insight Into the Importance of Crisis Discipline



This week, HBO debuted Paterno, starring Al Pacino as Joe Paterno, the eponymous football-coaching legend at Penn State who in 2011 found himself navigating a dire scandal. His former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested for sexually abusing children. In the movie, crisis communications gets a rare Hollywood depiction — especially the effort to convince a respected leader that he is in crisis.

While the dramatization invokes a healthy dose of artistic license, director Barry Levinson poignantly captures raw moments familiar to many who suddenly face an exploding crisis. In the scenes set in the Paternos’ living room, the aging coach and his family struggle to comprehend and then contain a crisis rapidly unfolding in the media.

Paterno, as portrayed by Pacino (pictured), spends much of the week following Sandusky’s arrest in various stages of denial, refusing to appreciate the gravity of accusations levied against him. His advisors draft statements and develop strategies that veer from Paterno denying he knew anything about Sandusky’s crimes to throwing the university’s administration under the bus. Sitting around with his family, the octogenarian equivocates on what he knew and what he did, preoccupied with scouting his next opponent.

The fraught deliberations inside the Paterno home show the importance of discipline in crisis communications. With the patriarch proclaiming his lack of guilt, his attempts to craft a response quickly fail. “It’s a press conference guys, not a deposition!” he says at one point. It’s clear his resistance hindered his response.

The family finally brings in a crisis expert, who bluntly tells them that crisis communications isn’t the same as regaling the press with tales of that day’s football-field exploits: “He can’t go out there. He’s used to being the emperor, holding forth in front of a press corps after they watched you win. You’re not disciplined enough to go in front of the press.”

‘Need to Resign’

He also tells them what Paterno refuses to see for himself: “You need to resign before somebody does it for you.”

As depicted in the film, four days after Sandusky’s indictment Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the season, only to be fired by the school’s Board of Trustees hours later.

Also this week, we saw an example of the flip side of Paterno’s lack of discipline in crisis communications. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to apologize for and explain the company’s data-handling issues. An enterprising AP photographer snapped a picture of Zuckerberg’s extensive talking points. For example, if he were asked if he should quit the company (which he wasn’t), the response was to be, “Founded Facebook. My decisions. I made mistakes. Big challenge, but we’ve faced problems before, going to solve this one. Already taking action.”

Zuckerberg was generally lauded for his staying-on-message performance.

So, even for Paterno, a legendary coach with tremendous goodwill and a half century of media experience, failing to immediately respond to allegations negated any future strategic efforts. In 2011, and significantly more so today, not responding immediately to adversity counts as a fumble.

Photo Credit: HBO

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