Earlier today, I wrote a post on the Harvard Business Review blog about Joe Paterno and reputation management.
Last Thursday, former FBI head Louis Freeh released a report on the child abuse scandal at Penn State that dealt a devastating blow to the university and to the legacy of the once revered football coach, Joe Paterno. In the report, Freeh’s investigators pointed to “a pervasive fear of bad publicity” as one of the main reasons Paterno and former Penn State president, Graham Spanier, allowed such heinous acts to go unreported. How could he have thought that covering up Jerry Sandusky’s repeated offenses would help him reach that goal?
After studying the topic of reputation for over a decade, I see Paterno’s behavior repeated again and again in the corporate world. Just a few months ago, the New York Times revealed that Walmart senior executives hid evidence of widespread bribery in its Mexican expansion effort. And just this past weekend, the Times reported that the FDA spied on its own scientists to catch whistle-blowers who leaked evidence that the agency had employed faulty review processes that led to the approval of potentially dangerous imaging devices.
Why do otherwise intelligent people seem to believe that they are protecting their reputation by covering up the truth when they are actually making things even worse? And, what can you do to make sure you are assessing reputational risk as seriously you do financial and legal risks to your institution?