Weber Shandwick exits crisis comms contract for Michigan State

The school's external counsel said it will likely hire additional staffers to handle media relations amid a crush of press requests.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

LANSING, MI: Weber Shandwick is stepping down from a $50,000 account supporting Michigan State University as it responds to the Larry Nassar scandal.

The Interpublic Group firm will stop work on the account this week after giving notice a month ago, according to the university.

"Per the provisions of their contract, Weber Shandwick provided MSU with 30 days notice that they would be ending their crisis communications work with us," said Heather Swain, VP of comms and brand strategy at Michigan State, via email. "That notice was provided February 7 and is effective March 9. Weber Shandwick’s work was vital to our team and to the university during a critical time."

Weber was retained in late December by Michigan State’s law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Affiliates, in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, according to a contract PRWeek obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Weber was paid a non-refundable retainer of $50,000 to support Skadden in handling PR and media-related concerns, according to the contract.

Weber Shandwick spokesperson Kimberly Dixon referred requests seeking comment to Michigan State.

A former doctor for Michigan State and U.S.A. Gymnastics, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison after pleading guilty to three sexual conduct cases in early February, in addition to a 60-year sentence for possession of child pornography last December. In January, more than 160 victim impact statements were read in court, some of which also blamed U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State for the scandal. The board of U.S.A. Gymnastics and the president and athletic director of Michigan State have resigned as a result of the scandal.

Skadden continues to represent Michigan State, according to John Truscott, president of Lansing-based PR agency Truscott Rossman, which was retained to support interim university president John Engler, a former governor of Michigan. Truscott, who served in Engler’s gubernatorial administration as communications director and press secretary, said he was hired to respond to political attacks levied against Engler and the school, noting it would have been inappropriate for a university employee to do so.

Prior to Truscott Rossman’s retention, CEO Kelly Rossman described Michigan State’s crisis comms function as led by the legal team, saying comms wasn’t in the room during key moments.

Truscott said Michigan State may hire more staffers to handle media relations, noting that its comms team hasn’t been able to keep up with the volume of media inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests.

Kent Cassella, who had served as a spokesman for Michigan State as it responded to the Nassar crisis, stepped down from his role as associate VP for media communications last week. Engler hired Kathleen Wilbur for the university’s top external relations and university role this week, along with Emily Gerkin Guerrant, a former SVP at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, as spokesperson.

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