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Penn State hurt by media blunders, communications expert says

UNIVERSITY PARK — A stunned silence descended upon the hundreds of reporters, photographers and cameramen representing the national media as a Penn State official announced Joe Paterno’s press conference had been canceled Tuesday.

Paterno, along with Penn State President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance Gary Schultz, have found themselves at the center a growing outcry of public scrutiny for their handling of a report of child sexual abuse allegedly committed by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno’s canceled press conference was the latest public relations gaffe committed by the university that has helped to fan the flames of the media firestorm, said Steve Manuel, a lecturer on crisis communications at Penn State and former public affairs officer for the office of the Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps spokesman.

“I was surprised they were even going to hold the press conference in the first place,” he said. “Nobody’s going to ask Joe what he thinks about Nebraska — there wasn’t a soul in the media who cares about that now.”

Manuel contends that Penn State’s failure to control the story has spawned blanket coverage from cable networks and news websites, and has drawn reporters from as far away as Los Angeles and London. Penn State should be trying to get in front of the media’s inquiries, Manuel said.

“You’re asked a question and you can say, ‘No comment,’ which you shouldn’t say because ‘No comment’ is a comment,” he said. “But if you’re not talking and you have a dog in the fight — and certainly Penn State has a large dog in this fight — you need to be saying something. Silence is not golden in this case.”

Pat Forde, a columnist for Yahoo Sports, stood amidst the horde of reporters scurrying after Jeff Nelson, the associate athletic director of communications who announced the cancellation of the press conference. He said Penn State would get “ripped for shutting down and hiding.”

“I don’t think don’t think shutting this down right now is the right answer,” he said. “People need answers. People have got to have some answers from the responsible parties and the people who have been involved in this thing and to continue to have nothing, I think, speaks pretty poorly.”

Many reporters, including Deb Erdley, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review, made their way into Paternoville, where encamped students braved interviews in front of notebooks and television cameras.

“The whole world is watching Penn State,” Erdley said, describing her newspaper’s interest in the story. “If you’ve ever seen the cars on (Route) 22 and (Route) 322 on football Saturdays, you know that in Pittsburgh, this is a big deal.”

Blaise DeLuca, a 19- year-old sophomore from Lancaster camping out in Paternoville, said the media is overreacting to the story.

“They’re putting this in a bad light,” he said. “It’s sad what happened, but they’re trying to put too much blame on Joe (Paterno) to make it a bigger story.”

Though DeLuca thought the media was focusing on the negative, Manuel said there were positives to this story, even if they were minute in comparison.

“Right now, I’m in middle of teaching a media relations class, and they’re learning from this,” Manuel said.

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