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Wake Up, Michigan State

January 30, 2018

 

At Michigan State University, there is a department called Communications & Brand Strategy (CABS). The department's website lays out their mission clearly. 

 

 "We are MSU's central communications team.We increase visibility and esteem for MSU, helping take university communications, engagement, and support to a higher level." 

 

Someone from the CABS office ought to get in touch with University leadership.

 

The past two weeks in East Lansing have been an irreparable embarrassment for Michigan State and everyone who cares about it. While the damage caused by the irredeemable Larry Nassar is almost unspeakable (even after 160 victim impact statements), the tone deafness of MSU leaders is perhaps even more befuddling.

 

Nassar is a monster. At long last, he is a monster in a cage. For a public institution and society as a whole, Larry Nassar was a walking crisis. He would have caused significant issues wherever he ended up. His type of evil is the most dangerous. Dr. Nassar came with a smile and a stethoscope. 

 

I will not litigate MSU's handling of Larry Nassar in this space. The Attorney General's investigation is underway, and there is much we do not know. 

 

What we do know, however, is that MSU has bungled the crisis management aspect of this scandal from the beginning. For a school with an entire department dedicated to crisis management and communications, MSU has seemed entirely lost. 

 

From the aforementioned CABS website regarding Crisis Communications:

 

 

"Whenever an issue or crisis emerges, it is important to

immediately accomplish several goals:

 

-Gain situational awareness

-Make contact with appropriate campus resources

-Prepare messaging and identify spokespeople

-Disseminate messaging on appropriate channels"

 

 

The leadership at Michigan State (including the President, Athletic Director, and Board of Trustees) has failed to accomplish every single one of these goals. 

 

They wholly lacked awareness of the situation. This was no better demonstrated than when president Lou Anna K. Simon claimed her "schedule was too busy" to attend the Nassar hearings. Her abbreviated appearance - seated in the very back of the courtroom- drew scorn from victims and the public alike. Simon knew there was a serious situation in her lap. She clearly lacked awareness of the scale. Considering the scandal drove her from office just days later, Simon would have been better served canceling whatever luncheon she had planned with University donors and spending more time facing the deluge of criticism at her doorstep. 

 

Michigan State did not appear to contact the appropriate campus resources, either. The CABS department is geared toward crisis management, and considering not a single tenet espoused by the CABS experts was followed, it is safe to assume they were not consulted. At best, their advice was not followed.

 

And did Michigan State really prepare their messaging for the Larry Nassar scandal? Did the school "identify spokespeople" and let them do all the talking on the University's behalf?

 

Considering the MSU Board of Trustees had roughly 37 different versions of what went wrong and where they stood on Simon, unity of message seems to have eluded them. There was no cohesive message of where MSU leadership stood, and no one could seem to decide whose voice should be considered "official".

 

You had MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson going on radio shows defiantly defending Simon, suggesting her future was only discussed for 10 minutes in the Board's meeting. Hours later, fellow Trustee Mitch Lyons openly contradicted Ferguson, saying several hours were spent regarding Simon's future at the school. 

 

And speaking of "disseminating messaging on appropriate channels"... why was Ferguson espousing his thoughts on "This Nassar Thing" to a local radio show? It was clear the Board of Trustees lacked consensus, and even if they had achieved unanimity, why was the first public statement regarding this crisis made so casually on a radio program? 

 

The role of any crisis management effort is to minimize the damage inflicted. It goes without saying that some damage will occur. It is called "crisis management" for a reason. You are managing an inherently chaotic and challenging situation. The entire concept is based on the mitigation of damage. 

 

Michigan State, conversely, has exacerbated every single problem they have encountered. Their message has been incoherent, contradictory, and generally aimless. 

 

This Trustee says Simon isn't going anywhere and has full support of the Board...

 

...while this other Trustee says Simon should resign hours later. 

 

Who speaks for MSU? What is the official position of Michigan State University? There has been no unity of message. 

 

Lou Anna K. Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis are gone. They will not likely be the last to depart. 

 

Until Michigan State can decide who speaks for the school and what their unified stance is, you will continue to see mixed messages from a confused collection of individuals. A petrified and clunky Tom Izzo navigating a minefield of probing questions appears to be the new normal for this rudderless ship.

 

This institution allowed the worst sexual abuse scandal in NCAA history to occur under their nose. In the aftermath, with all eyes on them, they couldn't even seem to agree on how much time they spent talking about the crisis in a board meeting.

 

How can we have faith in MSU's "Never Again" mantra if they can't even handle the apology correctly? 

 

Once Michigan State demonstrates an ability to manage a crisis, perhaps they can someday be trusted again to avert one. 

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