The Pulse: Penn State squandered its window to best handle crisis

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In this Oct. 8, 2011 file photo, Penn State President Graham Spanier, left, and head football coach Joe Paterno chat during warmups before a game against Iowa, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar, File)

At least six months.

That's the minimum amount of time that Pennsylvania State University officials had to ready their public response before everything hit the fan in the Jerry Sandusky case. While the debate continues as to who within the Penn State community was on notice of Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of children over the years, it is undeniable that, since the spring, the university was on notice of a potentially earth-shattering investigation. Still, the ineptitude that appears to have marked the oversight and management of Sandusky while a coach and in his retirement similarly prevailed when it came to communications.

Consider that two weeks ago, the Harrisburg Patriot-News was the first to report on the grand jury charges against Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator and onetime front-runner to succeed head coach Joe Paterno. But the same newspaper first reported on the existence and purpose of the grand jury months ago. A March 31 story began: "Penn State football legend Jerry Sandusky is the subject of a grand jury investigation into allegations that he indecently assaulted a teenage boy."

Reporter Sarah Ganim, relying on five sources, wrote that the grand jury had already been at work for at least 18 months and had heard the sworn testimony of Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, and retired university vice president Gary Schultz. Among the incidents recounted in Ganim's initial story was an allegation that Sandusky had inappropriately touched a student at Central Mountain High School in Clinton County. There was also mention of the 1998 report by university police of a separate inappropriate contact.

Go online and you can still see the original comments from readers, including "I didn't see that one coming!" Neither did Penn State, apparently, despite the Patriot-News' follow-up stories in April and August. What questions did members of the board of trustees ask as each of those stories appeared? What answers were they provided? Why was no one fired long before the grand jury report was published?

While nothing said or done more recently could have atoned for the alleged misconduct of Sandusky, the university had a duty to prepare its community of supporters for what was coming. Instead it was caught flat-footed when the grand jury report was made public. The initial reaction by Graham Spanier, the now-fired university president, was: "Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support."

That same blind loyalty also seems to have been extended to Paterno, who managed to become the winningest coach in college football history days before news of Sandusky's indictment broke. That JoePa was permitted to improve his career record to 409-136-3 despite the burgeoning scandal sheds further doubt on PSU's misplaced priorities and communications mind-set.

Paterno, meanwhile, was making his own plans for self-preservation. The New York Times has reported that, in July, he transferred the family home to his wife for $1, perhaps in anticipation of near-certain civil litigation. After the Sandusky arrest broke, Paterno attempted to leverage the announcement of his retirement at season's end in return for a graceful exit, saying that the trustees should "not spend a single minute discussing my status." The board, of course, ultimately fired him, a decision so clearly necessary by then that it may have decided in less than a "single minute."

In retrospect, there was evidence of a looming PR meltdown even before the announcement of Sandusky's arrest. In March, when Gov. Corbett proposed cutting state funding for Penn State and 17 other state-related and state universities by roughly 50 percent, it was Spanier who pushed back the loudest.

"This is devastating news that could fundamentally change Penn State and our sister institutions in the state and have major negative impacts for the citizens of Pennsylvania and their families," Spanier said at the time.

In any other context, those might have been laudable comments, but by then, several key university personnel had already given sworn testimony to a grand jury launched by Corbett himself when he was attorney general. Surely by then the university was in the loop, as nothing prevents an individual from discussing his grand jury testimony with others.

Even before the Patriot-News ran its first story, the university should have had a communications and outreach plan to address a variety of audiences - students, families, employees, alumni, the national public - not to mention the political community on which it depends for support. That the 24/7 news cycle has been feeding for 14 straight days off a diet of Happy (Valley) meals was entirely predictable. Whatever money should have been spent to get sound advice by experts in the field of crisis management will pale in comparison with the cost of the bad publicity that has been disseminated.

When the warning bell sounded in the spring, the university should have: launched its own investigation, fired everyone with knowledge of Sandusky who did not call police, and otherwise attempted to honor its standard of "success with honor" by leading on this issue. Instead, it has exacerbated the shame felt by every family with a Penn State connection.

 


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