Brand Leadership: The Scene At The Penn State President's New York Town HallS

The last place any sane person wanted to be this past Friday night was the Marriott hotel in Manhattan's financial district. The hotel's grand ballroom would be a good setting for a bad prom, complete with an ugly red carpet and garish inverted-pyramid chandeliers. An uneasy crowd of about 300 Penn State alums had gathered inside. They'd come to put questions to PSU president Rodney Erickson during the final stage of Erickson's three-act Sandusky-apologia roadshow. A town hall, it was called. (The first two towns had been Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.) I'd come to witness the stagecraft involved. The press, me included, was stationed at the back of the room and admonished to "respect their observer status." That meant no questions from us. Which was fine. Erickson wouldn't have answered anyway.

Earlier that day, I told my colleague Dom how, back in 2004, the paper I was working for in Jacksonville dispatched me to the airport to await the arrival of John Edwards, whom John Kerry had recently named his running mate. My purpose was not to talk to Edwards or even write a story about him. My purpose was to sit on the tarmac in the Florida sun and make sure that Edwards didn't die in a fiery plane crash. Because then I would have to call the newspaper so another reporter could write the story. (Newspapers weren't quite as broke then, but they were just as dumb.)

The Penn State town hall was the same deal. Who knew what might happen? Erickson might get pelted with avocado pits or stomped by a gang of Delta Kappa Epsilon brutes. There were several security types in bulging suits stationed around the inner perimeter of the grand ballroom. I knew there were others lurking in the wings, salivating at the prospect of some boohoo taking a shot at Erickson, which would give them the green light to kick ass. Nothing excites off-duty cops more than Taser-ing a college grad.

When Erickson replaced Graham Spanier (and before he announced that he'd be retiring in 2014), he made five public promises. Number three on the list: "Penn State is committed to transparency to the fullest extent possible given the ongoing investigations." That's the message these town hall meetings were meant to convey. Transparency. The first two were transparent enough. They were naked attempts by Erickson and his hirelings to regain "control of the narrative."

But they hadn't gone so well. The alumni were furious, mainly about the firing of Joe Paterno. As he would in New York City on Friday, Erickson bobbed and weaved past questions or let slip the occasional non-flack-approved remark. The farce was obvious to any independent observer (reporters for The New York Times excluded). On Friday, the word "brand" must have been used a dozen times in the course of 90 minutes, not always by Erickson. Market the brand. Brand turnaround. Brand this. Brand that. Sure, there was the requisite patter about "dialogue" and "commitment to growth and ongoing communication," but it's all code for the same thing: Protect the brand. I half-expected a PowerPoint presentation to break out.

"We're certainly going to work very hard to tell the complete story of Penn State in the days ahead," Erickson said on Friday. The complete story? Hardly. We'll get the story that protects the brand. This editorializing occurs wherever there's a scandal in big-money America, and it comes from the same place: a clubhouse in which the members are concerned less with what went wrong than with how it makes them look.

Why else would Erickson and PSU have refused repeated requests from alumni to release information about the emergency meetings held by the school's trustees to determine Paterno's future? Parts of those proceedings are subject to public scrutiny, but like so much else at Penn State and, for that matter, within Pennsylvania, they've been hidden away behind bylaws and regular laws that mock the ideal of transparency while purporting to uphold it.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Penn State may have gone outside the family to find a new football coach, but the job of cleaning up the Sandusky mess went to an insider. Previously, Erickson served as Penn State's executive vice president and provost, the university's chief academic adviser. He's served since 1999. He's part of the same institutional culture in Happy Valley that allowed the scandal to metastasize. You have to wonder how committed PSU is to any kind of real change when the school hires the CEO of an ethically challenged drug company to conduct an internal investigation and a dictator-loving, former White House counsel to do PR work.

Over the weekend, I read what other reporters had written about the town hall meeting on Friday. For the most part, they'd covered it straight. But this thing was bent. Erickson couldn't stop making football japes and talking about how he "bleeds blue and white." One alumnus broke down crying while asking about due process for Paterno. A few others—at least two of whom were journalists—peppered Erickson with pointed questions but got little in return beyond applause from the audience.

"You keep promising to honor the Paternos for their contributions to this university," said David Roush, a 2004 grad and local TV reporter. "How soon can we expect to hear these plans to honor Paterno, or are you and the board of trustees just waiting for a funeral service?"

"I haven't had any specific conversations about that," Erickson said.

He was more responsive to a question from the other side of the room: What is Penn State doing to remain great?

"That's a great question," Erickson said.

It was so great that I disregarded both his answer and my observer status and scoffed loudly. The reporter next to me, who looked even less happy than I did to be there, leaned over and muttered something about a "slow-pitch softball." That was when I began wondering if there were plants in the crowd. Erickson was fielding a mix of e-mailed questions, which could easily have been pre-screened, and questions from the audience, which were harder to control. Yet toward the end of the meeting, the slow-pitch softballs began winging in with greater frequency from the audience. There was one—more of a request, really—that Erickson get more media training so he could be more slick with the press.

"I'm an old farm-boy from Wisconsin," he chuckled. "I am what I am. You see what you get. I am not easily scripted."

After that, a woman stood up and tossed an outright Eephus pitch, one that moved so slowly I dozed off during its flight. From what I recollect, which could be erroneous, the woman had a leadership role in some official PSU alumni capacity and wasn't even asking a question but talking about the greatness of Penn State. It was all a big windup, it seemed, for the last question of the night. Someone that "we all needed to hear from" was here, the woman said. Had one of the alleged Sandusky victims turned up?

No. A tall, middle-aged man in a yellow jacket approached the microphone. He didn't have a question either. He just wanted to talk about how his daughter had loved Penn State and what had happened to her. I'll leave it to the PSU student paper to describe:

Softly addressing the crowd and Erickson, William O'Bryan introduced himself as the father of Courtney O'Bryan, a Penn State freshman who died in a car crash during an Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon canning trip in November.

After referencing the impact of THON, O'Bryan said, "There are great things going on at Penn State. There are great people at Penn State. Have the faith, let's keep the ball rolling."

The entire audience jumped up and gave O'Bryan an emotional standing ovation. I couldn't help but think about the compulsory honoring of war veterans at sporting events. And I couldn't help but wonder about transparency and Erickson's comment about not being scripted. What would one of Jerry Sandusky's alleged victims feel right then? I say all this not to make light of anyone's tragedy but merely because it struck me as weird. And because my job requires me to be a cynic.

Today, I looked up THON online. It's an organization that raises money to fight pediatric cancer. Its website claims that THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Great people doing great things. During his 10-minute preamble before the Q&A session, Erickson had spent ample time singing the praises of Penn State. He listed the accomplishments of the football team, the academic achievements of the students, and a plethora of No. 1 rankings in various areas that demonstrated greatness. Right at the end of his preamble, he made a point to mention THON, and that, too, was great. I didn't pay it much mind until I heard the name again at the end of the night. We have a term for that in the narrative-control business. It's called book-ending.