Thought Leadership


Joe Paterno’s level of culpability and what he knew, and when, about former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s criminal conduct involving widespread sexual abuse of children is the focus of Barry Levinson’s new HBO movie ‘Paterno’.  The film takes place over the final six days of “Joe Pa’s” 61-year tenure at Penn State in November of 2011.  While the story is tragic and fascinating, the role crisis communications played in the portrayal stuck with me due to the nature of Makovsky’s work.

In ‘Paterno’, as the allegations mounted about prior knowledge and not enough action by Joe Paterno over alleged complaints about Sandusky, the story could no longer be controlled.  Cut to a scene of Penn State students chanting on Paterno’s front yard asking to be heard.  The family is seen panicking inside the house about what to do next.  Paterno’s daughter, Mary Kay, does an internet search on her smartphone looking up “crisis communications” for help.  Mary Kay finds a “highly rated” crisis practitioner named Dan McGinn, who at the time worked for TMG Strategies, and now runs his own firm, McGinn and Company.

Until this point, nobody knew what to do.  Enter McGinn: first on the cold call from the Paterno family, he tells them that Joe Paterno is a separate entity from Penn State, and the interests here moving forward are not aligned.  Then in a subsequent scene, McGinn lays out the situation at the Paterno’s home dining room table, firmly stating that Paterno must resign if he wants any say in this crisis because he will be getting fired if he doesn’t and time matters.  A sobering but necessary moment for a man who has a statue of himself on Penn State’s campus, being told his tenure will not be ending on his own terms.

Paterno takes McGinn’s advice announcing at a press conference he would resign at the season’s end with four remaining games.  Little did the Paterno family know, that McGinn’s advice was so dead on that not only did Joe Pa not last as coach till the end of the season, just hours after his press conference he’s unceremoniously fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees by way of a courier delivering a letter to the Paterno home telling him to call the school. Paterno dials the number and is told he’s been terminated.

McGinn’s foresight and ability to quickly grasp and calmly offer advice in an emotionally intense situation, displayed the value of organized thought and independent counsel during utter chaos.  The other takeaway is someone of Joe Paterno’s mythic stature is not above crisis communications help, and who knows who could be calling you on the other end of the phone from a google search?

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