As I’m writing this, I’m reading the breaking news stories about the impending retirement of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. I won’t go into the case here; you can read the details for yourself elsewhere online, in as much detail as you wish. But a couple of thoughts that keep coming back to me, as someone whose job it’s been for 15 years to advise companies about how they should message themselves to their publics in both good and bad times (and who was a reporter for 15 years before that):

They had to know this was coming: The charges filed in the case, which broke the story wide open, were filed by a grand jury. While that body met in secret, Joe Paterno and others testified before it. Penn State knew there would be a likelihood of charges being filed, and yet…based on the way this has played out…apparently did little, if anything, to prepare in advance for how its side of the story would be handled. University Relations should have been called in at the earliest possible moment, briefed on what was known and on possible outcomes, and allowed to develop multiple response scenarios. Without inside knowledge, I can’t pretend to know what actually happened. But given Penn State’s response to date, it appears the school was caught flat-footed by the outrage once the story became public. It obviously should not have been, and the extent of damage to Penn State’s reputation (and no, I’m not just talking about its football program) is something that will have to be tracked over the long term.

The Board of Trustees doesn’t have a clue: When the Board said it would appoint a committee to look into the situation, did anyone besides me groan and shake their heads? Companies and institutions that announce that they’re immediately appointing a fact-finding commission are clearly admitting that they’re stalling for time. Reporters covering the story know it….the public knows it….why can’t the Board figure this out for themselves?

There’s a loss of confidence and trust: Will anyone believe what Penn State’s leadership says in the coming days, weeks and months? Its failure to get out ahead of this story has severely hurt its reputation. Its unilateral canceling of Paterno’s news conference, where he said he was prepared to discuss the situation, made it clear it was in “hunker down” mode. Hardly the way you want a public institution to be perceived.

Above all else, tell the truth: Paterno and Penn State’s leadership should have done the right thing a decade ago. If evidence was discovered of illegalities…and what we’ve heard so far clearly indicates it was…the university should have immediately taken steps to ensure that they were brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities. Merely saying, “I turned it over to my superior and that absolves me of further action” doesn’t cut it. Similarly, companies that deal with the public need to understand that the more they try to “manage” or hide a situation, the more it inevitably comes out looking worse. A trusted PR counselor should be called in as a key member of the advisory team from the very beginning, and if nobody else will do it, that counselor should be prepared to act as the conscience of the company.

The Penn State scandal is a tragedy of multiple angles, the least of which is the damage to the football team, or Paterno’s reputation. Companies of all sizes would do well to review what’s happened here, and use it as a textbook example of what not to do, regarding ethics and communicating with the public.