The Painful Penn State Communication Lesson


I’ve long contended that just about every project and business failure has a common denominator of significant communication failures. This applies to life and personal relationships as well. Despite that, most of us believe we communicate well even though we may often fail. Sometimes we fail and don’t even realize it. Other times, we fail and believe we did all we could do. We think it wasn’t our fault, the other guy just didn’t listen or respond correctly. The classic, “It’s not my fault.”

I would like to suggest there is also another, lessor-acknowledged type of communication failure. A failure you may not believe is a communication problem but instead a personal responsibility problem.

I contend it is both.

Let me explain. The unsavory events that have recently become public about a Penn State coach’s heinous behavior teaches several communication lessons, including one lesson that may not be obvious. This lesson is that not all messages can be passed. The most important messages must be shared. There is a difference.

Hands passing a baton
Some messages are passed like a baton.

In the Penn State situation, several University leaders, including Coach Paterno, apparently passed along information about a problem with an assistant coach who was behaving illegally and immorally. Information about this situation was passed along official channels and up the leadership chain.

However, it now appears the gravity of the message was ignored (or hidden) by many, compounding the problem and even allowing for the opportunity for there to be even more victims. Yet even this alone was not enough for a failure. The failure came because like the message, responsibility was passed but not shared.

In this case there was not a failure to share information. No, this is a problem where the message was heard, minimized and then apparently forgotten, hidden, or ignored. And there was no sharing of the problem to create responsibility for addressing the message. Each person passed the message, and the problem, and then apparently felt they were relieved of the responsibility attached to the message. It wasn’t their problem any more (well, until now).

Business people in a group
Some messages are shared, growing the number that share the responsibility.

Whether it is to hide an issue, to minimize damage, to ignore an unsettling problem or something else, it is clear there are times where we must step up and share a strong or challenging message we’d rather not. Some information and messages cannot simply be passed along a command structure like passing a baton.

Instead, some messages must be shared, not passed. Giving such a message to another does not relieve you of its burden or responsibility, it must expand the group of people that bear responsibility.

Clearly we have the advantage of hindsight to criticize the actions of others. That is not my goal today. Even Coach Paterno now says, “I wish I had done more.” My point is that we have the opportunity of learning a hard and easily ignored lesson to help avoid repeating such avoidable failures.

Penn State’s leadership passed the message, and its responsibility, instead of sharing it. Now they are all sharing the burden of this failure at a great cost to more victims and to each one’s personal reputation, career and even legacy.

Glenn S. Phillips is the author of Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself. His website,, will lead you to more information about effective communication training, risk assessments and genuinely helpful tips. You can email Glenn directly at

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About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.