Michigan State University switches comms lead on Nassar crisis

The school is also being supported by two PR firms, Truscott Rossman and Weber Shandwick, as it responds to the crisis surrounding disgraced former university doctor Larry Nassar.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Lovelac7 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=511085)
Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Lovelac7 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=511085)

LANSING, MI: Michigan State University has appointed a new lead on crisis communications, Kent Cassella, associate VP, comms, and senior PR strategist, as it responds to the Larry Nassar crisis.

Cassella has replaced senior media comms manager Jason Cody, who previously led the day-to-day on crisis management and media inquiries on Nassar, according to Cassella.

"Jason Cody has done an outstanding job as MSU spokesperson and has now been reassigned to other duties in MSU communications and brand strategy office," Cassella said, via email.

Cody said via email, "I am no longer serving as spokesperson for the university or handling media calls."

Agency CEO Kelly Rossman-McKinney said Truscott Rossman was hired to fill what she described as a vacant crisis-response function led by the legal team.

"In this case, it doesn’t appear the comms folks were even in the room, much less working side-by-side," she said. "Despite the many resources on campus, it doesn’t appear any of them were utilized."

Michigan State has a brand strategy division, as well as a communications program.

Truscott Rossman was the second agency brought on, after Weber Shandwick was reportedly hired in December, according to the Lansing State Journal. The Interpublic Group agency referred requests for comment to Michigan State.

One of the first calls newly appointed interim president John Engler made was to his former comms director and press secretary when he was governor of Michigan, Truscott Rossman president John Truscott, said Rossman-McKinney.

When Michigan reached out to Truscott, "it took a nano-second" for the firm’s principals to decide they would take the business, Rossman-McKinney said.

Truscott is serving as the lead on the account, proving strategic comms support while tapping into Weber for help. He is reporting directly to Engler, she added.

Nassar, a USA Gymnastics doctor affiliated with Michigan State University, was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young gymnasts in his care. Last month, more than 160 victim impact statements were read in court, some of which blamed the situation on the university and USA Gymnastics.

Truscott Rossman recently cut ties with longtime client Joel Ferguson, a real estate developer and member of the university’s board of trustees, for his "tone-deaf" comments on the issue.

"A PR pro not only has to be the conscience for the client, but in some cases, to preserve your own integrity, you have to step down," Rossman-McKinney said. "We’re stepping up to work specifically for MSU because there is an interim president committed to doing the right thing."

When the Nassar crisis first began about two years ago, Truscott Rossman approached the leadership of the school, including the board of trustees, then-president Lou Anna Simon, and former athletic director Mark Hollis. "We begged--begged--to come in and at least talk through what a strategic comms plan should look like," Rossman-McKinney said. "They told us they had it handled."

Since then, Hollis and Simon have resigned, while the entire board delivered emotional mea culpas during a public meeting last month.

Previously, MSU worked with Blue Moon Consulting. The San Francisco-based agency declined to provide specifics about its work on the crisis.

"We take the confidentiality of all our clients very seriously, so we have no specific comment regarding MSU," said managing partner Simon Barker of Blue Moon.  

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