Crisis manager who advised PSU board of trustees second guesses some decisions

A nationally known crisis manager, who has helped a star-studded cast including President Clinton, Martha Stewart and Sen. Trent Lott, has written a new book, including an afterword on his work with Pennsylvania State University’s board of trustees in the aftermath of the child sex abuse scandal.

In the just released “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics and Life,” Lanny Davis second guesses some decisions around the independent investigative report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s reliance on the Freeh report as the basis for unprecedented sanctions against the university.

He also describes how he stumbled upon a new approach to crisis management when he first heard from members of the board of trustees during a cathartic four-hour conference call on Jan. 14, 2012 about their gut-wrenching decision to remove legendary football coach Joe Paterno.

“Emotion took over,” he wrote. “...It was like listening to a group of people giving something akin to religious testimony, each experiencing a catharsis.”

Davis wrote that he always advised clients to get the facts out early when a problem emerges. But in this case, he wrote that he realized it was the emotion of the trustees, who asked Paterno to leave before finishing the last three games of the season, that the public needed to see.

“The idea of writing the Penn State chapter, literally was the last thought when the book was ready to be published,” Davis said in a 45-minute telephone interview. “This is a very good new method of dealing with a crisis.

“I knew this wasn’t about facts because of the high emotion some people felt for Coach Paterno no matter what facts they heard. The one thing I realized that can’t be debated is the sincerity of emotions - and the gut-wrenching pain of that decision by every member of the board. That cannot be debated.”

Davis, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer, will be in Philadelphia Wednesday night at the Dilworth Paxson law firm, where he serves as special counsel, to talk about his book at an event being hosted by some powerful sponsors on both sides of the political aisle - former governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell.

Davis was hired by the university in early December 2011, as animosity against the 32-member board was mounting for its ousting of Paterno. The first call came from Cynthia Baldwin, Penn State’s former general counsel, asking him to give advice to President Rodney Erickson. The following month, while on an Acela express train, he received a call from then board of trustees chair Steven Garban, who wanted Davis to help him and the rest of the board deal with “the downward spiral of negative media coverage,” Davis wrote. He had to slip into a bathroom at the end of the car, the only place he could find privacy, he writes.

“People were knocking and saying ‘get out of the bathroom. What are you doing in there?’ ” he said.

Subsequently, Davis arranged interviews for the board with the New York Times and other media.

While the book doesn’t reveal new facts about the case, Davis outlines his interactions and raises questions about some decisions.

The board decided not to review the 267-page Freeh report before it was released to the public, which meant it didn’t have time to prepare a press strategy, “something that some later came to regret,” he wrote.

Davis said he’s still torn but ultimately thinks he would have made the same decision.

Secondly, he wrote that many were “uneasy about Freeh’s decision to go beyond making specific findings of fact based on specific evidence and to offer his conclusions...”

But Davis said: “You can’t tell Louis Freeh not to do that. That is Louis Freeh. He’s a very independent-minded fellow.”

Third, Davis writes that many were also “uneasy” that Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, based the sanctions - including a prohibition on bowl games, a $60 million fine and loss of scholarships - on the Freeh report rather than “giving the university a hearing or an opportunity to rebut or present mitigating reasons regarding the level of sanctions.”

“I would have advised Mr. Emmert differently,” Davis said. Even if the outcome were the same, the process would have seemed more fair with a hearing, he said. “It appeared to be unfair the way it was done,” he said.

Davis said he assisted the board into spring 2011 and continued to help Erickson into fall 2012.

Other chapters in the book cover his work for Martha Stewart, the Royal Caribbean cruise line in the wake of a death of a honeymooner who went overboard and Macy’s after it was accused of racial discrimination in the apprehension of shoplifters. It also includes international cases he became involved in, among others.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.