Penn State's response to the Sandusky scandal was rated one of the top public relations disasters for not only 2011 but also 2012. Now, based on Lisa Powers' preliminary hearing testimony, we know that John Surma directed the disaster that ensued after the release of the grand jury presentment.
A PR blog in Denver summed it up this way...
Penn State represents one of the greatest PR disasters of all time, certainly of the last decade. In fact, it has been such a debacle that the university managed to make the list both last year and this year. Last year, the university went from one of the nation’s most revered institutions to one of the most reviled in a matter of weeks due to its lack of a response to a horrible child sex abuse scandal that saw two administrators indicted, a former assistant coach arrested and football coaching legend Joe Paterno fired. This year, additional details emerged about an institutional culture that valued football success over protecting innocent children that were disturbing enough that the NCAA nearly gave the school’s football program the so-called “Death Penalty.” The result was another year of brutal headlines that will have almost everyone older than 10 associating Penn State with child rape for the rest of their lives.
Here's the summary from Business Insider, who rated it as 2012's top disaster:
1. Penn State covers up the Sandusky scandal.
Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and later convicted of repeated counts of child molestation while at Penn State.
Although the scandal was unveiled in 2011, the university felt the full fallout in 2012 when the Freeh report stated that Joe Paterno and the administration covered up Sandusky's abuses, Major companies pulled sponsorships of the program.
Part of the PR disaster was due to Penn State's initial difficulty addressing the problem. Pulitzer-winning stories in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg initially uncovered the scandal in March 2011. But Penn State remained tightlipped. PR firm Ketchum was hired in November of 2011, and the school hired Edelman and La Torre for crisis management in April 2012. The school pledged to spend $208,000 a month for 12 months on PR support, but the damage was done.
March 2011 Grand Jury ArticleAccording to Powers' testimony (page 20), she had reached out to then-PSU General Counsel, Cynthia Baldwin for advice on how to respond the 31 March 2011 Patriot News article regarding PSU officials who had testified at the Sandusky grand jury.
Baldwin told Powers it was the third or fourth grand jury (actually, it was the second due to the first grand jury's term expiring) that had looked into the Sandusky allegations and there was nothing there. It was a fishing expedition. Baldwin said that PSU had nothing to say and Powers followed the advice of counsel.
This appeared to be a major tactical error and poor PR decision on PSU's part, however, Caroline Roberto, the attorney representing former Athletic Director, Timothy Curley, revealed that Judge Fuedale issued a non-disclosure order to PSU (page 58) in February 2011.
PSU was forbidden from being transparent about its role in the Sandusky probe.
However, the March article, in reality, didn't have much of an impact with the public or the PSU BOT.
Many people, myself included, believed that the investigation may have resulted from a Second Mile participant who had an ax to grind with Sandusky. The situation was similarly characterized by Spanier and Baldwin when they briefed the PSU BOT in May of 2011.
November 2011: Right MoveLooking back at how the Penn State PR disaster unfolded, Graham Spanier did exactly the right thing when he issued the statement making it clear that there were allegations (not crimes) against Sandusky and defending the actions of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. Spanier's November 5th statement follows (my emphasis added):
"The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.
With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.
Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately."
According to Powers' testimony at the preliminary hearing, on October 28th, Spanier had gathered together a small group of PSU leaders, including Garban, Baldwin, and PR chief Bill Mahon to discuss the pending charges against Curley and Schultz. Spanier expressed that he was sure that the men had handled the situation appropriately and was giving them his full support. When Powers asked Spanier why he would choose to support Curley and Schultz, Spanier responded essentially by asking Powers to put herself in the position of the accused men and if she would expect the support of her supervisor.
In short, Spanier was doing what a good leader would do - defend the actions of Curley and Schultz, and more importantly, Penn State University. A poor leader would have thrown the men and PSU under the bus (to protect himself) -- and that was the option exercised by the PSU BOT about one week later.
November 2011 - Wrong MovesAfter Spanier issued his statement, Powers got word the next day that the PSU BOT was angry that Spanier had "changed" the statement. Spanier responded that he did not make substantive changes to the statement and Powers testified that the only changes made were to add the line about protecting children and Spanier's unconditional support of Curley and Schultz.
The BOT was never specific about what changes to the statement were the "crimes of the century," however, I suspect that it really didn't matter what Spanier wrote -- the BOT was going to find fault with it and use it as a reason to relieve him of his duties as President.
This is where it gets interesting.
While the BOT was allegedly upset with Spanier's statement, they did not issue a new statement to replace it. Instead, all anyone heard from November 5th to November 9th was silence -- and a few leaked rumors of the intended removal of Joe Paterno as head coach.
On Monday, November 7th, Linda Kelly held the press conference to announce the Sandusky charges. Many who viewed the press conference found it unusual that Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan took the the microphone and made the fateful statement that Paterno failed in his moral obligation to protect children. However, this should not have come as any surprise, as Noonan was also prominently mentioned and quoted in the OAG's press release about the Sandusky charges. In other words, Noonan was involved in the crafting of the message, likely because the presentment and press conference had to provide cover for his disastrous three year investigation (where police and investigators failed to surface a victim).
Surma Takes Over
John Surma and Steve Garban met for breakfast on Tuesday, November 8th and, in a pre-planned move, Garban stepped aside and Surma took over.
According to the New York Times, Corbett (who earlier vowed to fire Spanier) had been working the phones with Surma and other BOT members once the indictment became public. Garban told Spanier that the BOT had lost confidence in his ability to lead.
PSU's only chance to right the sinking ship in this disaster would have been Paterno's Tuesday morning press conference, however, Surma (who was now in control of PSU) cancelled it.
According to Powers, all communications emanating from PSU after the original statement from Spanier had to be approved by Surma. And Surma, whose family had a major ax to grind with Paterno, was more than happy to let the media dictate the false narrative of that Sandusky's crimes were covered up by Paterno and others to protect the football program.
PSU remained silent until the night of November 9th, 2011 - when Surma himself declared Spanier and Paterno should be removed in the "best interests, long term interests" of Penn State University.
Approximately one hour earlier, Surma had moved that Paterno be removed in his conference call with trustees. The motion was met by silence - except for the voice of Tom Corbett, who stated, "remember that little old boy in the shower."
When asked to explain the reasoning behind the decisions to remove Paterno and Spanier, Surma was woefully short on answers.
Ketchum, who was hired in November 2011, obviously did nothing to help PSU and the hiring of LaTorre and Edelman to assist PSU's public relations efforts can be summed up in two words: