The 23-page grand jury report was the product of a "multiyear investigation." Top university officials were questioned under oath about the alleged rape of a young boy on campus by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The state attorney general was running an explosive probe into child-sex-abuse charges that might later be shared with a horrified public.
And yet the very institution whose top officials had been hauled before investigators, a behemoth with a $4.1 billion annual budget and a College of Communications billed as the country's largest, appeared to have no plan for the public-relations crisis that blew up as the report went public Saturday.
In other words, Pennsylvania State University, mystifyingly and to its great detriment, dropped the ball.
"I've seen crises where a client gets a call out of the blue and something's blown up, and those are around-the-clock, 24/7, in-the-heat-of-the-moment" response strategies, said Joe Crivelli, senior vice president of Gregory FCA, a public- and investor-relations firm in Ardmore. "But for something like this, where there's lead time to prepare for when this would be made public? Kind of mind-boggling."
Even with the dramatic firing Wednesday night of head football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier, Crivelli and others said, Penn State was far from gaining control of the raging abuse scandal and the alleged institutional-cover-up story line that has gripped the nation and sullied the university's once-sterling reputation.
There was no more compelling symbol of that than the violence in the streets of State College into Thursday morning, the experts said. Students toppled a news van and jostled with police in riot gear after John P. Surma, the U.S. Steel chief executive who is vice chairman of the Penn State board of trustees, announced the firings in a news conference marred by shouts from angry students.
"The news conference itself, I thought, was cold and corporate rather than recognizing the emotional impact to both sides of the story," said Hugh Braithwaite, who teaches crisis communications at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "And as a result, they are left without a spokesperson, a leader, to deliver the news."
University officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
According to the grand jury presentment, Mike McQueary, then a graduate coaching assistant, saw Sandusky raping a young boy in a Penn State shower in 2002 and told Paterno the next day. Paterno relayed the information to his athletic director. Neither Paterno nor McQueary contacted police, even after seeing Sandusky around campus years later. (McQueary, an assistant coach, will not be at Saturday's game, the university announced.)
Penn State's response when this was made public? So inconsistent, so unfocused, and without a persuasive message of sorrow and regret that one expert compared it to "whiplash" on the public and another to a "hurricane."
Within hours of state Attorney General Linda Kelly's release of the presentment, Spanier issued a statement pledging "unconditional support" for the two top executives accused of lying to the grand jury and not notifying police. His backing of athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz was viewed by the public-relations experts as the first of many missteps.
"I was struck by two things. One, the sheer horror of the allegations," said Kevin Feeley, president of Bellevue Communications in Philadelphia. "I mean, if this is true, this guy [Sandusky] is a monster. And two, I remember distinctly reading the papers and seeing 'unconditional support,' and I thought, 'Oh, that's going to be a problem.' "
Spanier violated one of three tenets of effectively managing a public-relations storm, said Braithwaite, president of Braithwaite Communications in Philadelphia.
"The general philosophy on crisis we use is to validate the concern," he said. "Not to admit guilt, but to validate the concern on the core of the issue, show action, and control the narrative."
Spanier and the university, he said, "were defending against the concern and they were not showing action. They were showing inaction until [Wednesday] and then not controlling the narrative."
Curley and Schultz left their posts, Curley through a leave of absence and Schultz by retiring. Paterno and McQueary, however, remained.
Notoriously autonomous throughout his career, Paterno held a news conference on his porch early in the week, during which he chanted with students as though cheering at a game. On Wednesday, amid reports that the board was angling to have him removed, Paterno issued a statement saying he would retire at season's end, only to be fired by day's end.
Removing Paterno and Spanier was "bold," Braithwaite said, "but they [the trustees] were more or less goaded into that."
"Had they taken these actions without a grand jury," he added, "they would have been praised."