Michigan State scandal reminds us our business is about people

The MSU story is a tragedy and a crisis on many levels. It's also a warning about what can happen when brands forget their focus is people.

Former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon
Former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon

There are many lessons from the Larry Nassar sexual assault and abuse scandal at Michigan State University and U.S.A. Gymnastics. This includes important lessons for the public relations and crisis communication community.

First, we are in the people business. That matters more during a crisis. Second, crises have a long tail, and there is much work practitioners need to do before Michigan State can look forward. Third, context is important. Finally, effective, people-focused communication during a crisis matters and is more than just a strategic business function.

First, the Nassar scandal serves the public relations profession with yet another example that the benefit of our counsel is not to the brands we protect but to the people whose lives we improve. After all, denials, evasions, and overly "lawyered" statements may serve short-term objectives, but they rarely help an organization see its way through a crisis. In many cases, such positioning works directly against a company’s corporate values, the values of its stakeholders, and those of the community at large.

One need only look to last week’s resignation letter from then-Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon to see how the tonality of an organization's messaging belies its approach to a crisis. This, one of the most prominent messages in the Michigan State scandal, is grounded almost exclusively in denial and evasion of responsibility.

Nearly three-quarters of Simon’s 30-sentence letter contain messages that seek to protect the image and prestige of the university, "to put Team MSU first" as she wrote. "Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU." When it came time to talk about the victims or to discuss what Michigan State is doing to protect young women in the future, Simon only devoted four sentences.

The implication is the response to the crisis was informed by the need to protect Michigan State. This served only to increase the damage to the brand. Subsequent statements have reflected a similar attitude and have failed to sufficiently prioritize the needs of victims and the harm they suffered.

There are a variety of logical next steps the university should take, starting with changes in leadership. Several long, painful, and public investigations will follow with no doubt more headline-grabbing revelations. This will include examination of profound institutional failures.

As we see in so many crises and disasters-GM ignition switches, the Flint water crisis, and now MSU-many institutions do not have adequate systems in place to identify wrongdoing. They are distracted, don’t see patterns, and the pieces aren't brought together. Managers find it hard to understand complaints when they don’t support dominant beliefs or are inconsistent with the corporate culture. And far too often, our institutions prioritize their own needs and security over those of the victims.

A second lesson is this kind of crisis shakes an institution to its core and resolution will not come quickly, cheaply, or easily. A long process of self-reflection and change, apology and self-mortification, healing and repair of a damaged image and brand lies ahead. Michigan State must change, and this will include ongoing changes in leadership as both a symbolic and substantive response to demands for accountability. The university has already begun the process of reaching out directly to victims, students, alumni, supporters, and donors to apologize and commit to changes. These apologies must be sustained and backed up with substantive corrective actions.

Third, this crisis must also be understood within the context of the recent litany of sexual abuse and harassment revelations. The heightened awareness of sexual assault and institutional indifference certainly made this crisis worse for Michigan State. It was not, however, the cause. Crises are often understood within the context of other, similar events and in this case the closest analogy is the Penn State scandal. Organizations can learn from the mistakes others have made. Penn State's failure to adopt a proactive strategy of self-mortification extended the harm. In light of this scandal, many academic institutions will be examining their policies and procedures and reviewing their crisis communication plans.

Finally, one important lesson for PR practitioners is communication should be focused on helping people and not just protecting brand image. Engaging public relations professionals early in determining policy and strategy is critical. Michigan State’s initial response did not appear to recognize that brands are nothing more than a promise of how an organization is going to interact with the people most important to it.

The MSU story is a tragedy and a crisis on many levels. First and foremost, it is a tragedy for at least 150 young women who were sexually assaulted, many repeatedly, and then systematically ignored when they came forward to report it. This part of the story cannot be overlooked or discounted. The story is also a crisis for the institutions within which the abuse occurred. And it is a story about what happens when brands forget that their business is people.

Michigan State is a world-class academic institution with a stellar record of successes, social justice initiatives, research excellence, and a valuable brand. This is a sad moment for a great university and one that will require a thoughtful and sensitive public relations strategy to change, heal, and move forward.

William Nowling is MD and partner at Lambert, Edwards & Associates in Detroit. He led communications for the City of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy.

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