Bound Volume Number


Degree Type

Honors Capstone Project

Date of Submission

Winter 12-15-2014

Capstone Advisor

Prof. Dennis F. Kinsey

Honors Reader

Prof. Patrick T. Ryan

Capstone Major

Public Relations

Capstone College

Public Communications

Audio/Visual Component



Pennsylvania State University, child sex abuse scandal

Capstone Prize Winner


Won Capstone Funding


Honors Categories


Subject Categories

Advertising and Promotion Management


This thesis paper is an analysis of the crisis communication response to the 2011 Pennsylvania State University child sex abuse scandal. The reputation of this iconic university and its football program was changed forever by this horrific event, which involved years of administrative cover-ups of the sexual assault of children by an assistant football coach. However, despite widespread public backlash, administrative upheaval and heavy NCAA sanctions in the months after the scandal broke, Penn State has since made major strides in image improvement.

This project delves into what defines best crisis communication practices, using Penn State as a case study. While much of what the university did falls into the “what not to do” category, there is a lot to be learned from its actions. The purpose of this thesis is to look at what went right, what went wrong, and why, taking a deeper look at a large-scale public relations crisis in the context of the complex world of college athletics.

My research begins with a literature review of best practices for dealing with crises in terms of communications. Background research of the institution and the scandal itself through news coverage and various literature, including a biography on legendary PSU coach Joe Paterno, provided the foundation for a situation analysis. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the crisis situation were then laid out. Next came a communications audit of the way Penn State responded in the midst of a highly publicized scandal and an analysis of the administrative response to the situation, from firing and hiring to how the current (at the time) football team dealt with the situation. The final phase of research involved creating an evaluation of Penn State’s actions, along with recommendations for practitioners addressing college football crises in the future.

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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
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