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It's unusual for the design of a members' magazine to create publishing ripples. But the new issue of the Penn State University alumni magazine, The Penn Stater, does just that. It's a black-on-black cover, with the words "Penn State" fallen from the masthead to the foot of the page - and only the words "Our Darkest Days" are legible in white. (You can see it here.)
Penn State University has been embroiled in a sex abuse scandal, which has seen their legendary football coach fired and the university president removed. This has been a traumatic scandal for the university, and the cover, as well as the content, of their alumni magazine reflects it.
Of course, the design itself is not completely original - one thinks of this black-on-black New Yorker cover following 9/11. But acknowledging their "darkest days" as a print cover story like this is striking. For how many clients would have been tempted to ignore this kind of issue in their own communications? How many financial institutions, for example, would acknowledge a corporate scandal in their customer magazine? Historically, they've been more concerned to try and stress that it's business as usual.
When your bank has been bailed out, your car has been recalled or your university involved in a scandal, that's the one thing everyone seems to talk about. Except, historically, the institution itself.
Institutions and brands have been notorious for keeping unfortunate events out of their own publications. In their own media, whose content they controlled, they felt able to ignore the elephant in the room.
But the conversations which were once held in the pub are now held in public. And when the jokes are made on Twitter, and the comments are made in blogs, everyone can see that elephant.
It's true that alumni are very special groups, because they can never really rescind their relationship with the "brand" of the university they attended. You can change your bank or your car - but you can't take a university off your CV. And most people wouldn't want to change that connection, whatever the contemporary circumstance might be. The original relationship is that strong.
Perhaps that's why Penn State feel they can and should share their issues with their audience. And to make it their cover story, in such a striking way, is bold. Yet it only reinforces the idea that nowadays, acknowledgment and involvement are key elements in engaging any strong relationship between brands and audiences. If the relationship is strong, it anticipates such engagement - and without such engagement, the relationship will never be strong.
Paul Keers, Founding Director, Axon Publishing