Dialing in at the appropriate time, I listened as the host introduced me and the topic: “Today, Company X announced that it was shutting down part of its local plant, costing hundreds of jobs. On the phone is Rick Chambers, and Rick, you ruined a lot of people’s day today.”
After a quick pick-up-my-jaw-from-the-floor moment, I answered: “Of course, that’s not what we set out to do. Let me explain what we announced today and, most importantly, what we’re doing to support the people affected.” I then took the time to explain the decision, the reasons behind it, and the many ways the company would assist its employees and the community. Throughout the interview, I underscored again and again the company’s concern for the people facing an unsettling change and its commitment to help.
By the time the interview ended, the once-hostile host thanked me and the company for being present, explaining the decision and supporting those affected.
Reflecting on that experience, I’m convinced that being transparent, publicly acknowledging and owning the pain of the decision on real people, and pledging to do everything possible to help ease that pain, did more than just turn around an uncomfortable radio interview. It began the process of healing for all involved.
It’s too bad Michigan State University can’t learn that lesson.
MSU is circling the legal and PR wagons around its leadership, President Lou Anna Simon in particular, over the monstrous case of Larry Nassar, an MSU sports doctor convicted of seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and accused of hundreds more. According to an investigative article in the Detroit News, at least 14 university staff persons were told about Nassar over the years, yet he continued to molest young athletes until his arrest in 2016.
What Nassar’s victims faced—a story being told in heartbreaking detail as 101 of them make statements ahead of his sentencing next week—is nothing short of horrific.
Yet every statement and action by MSU fails to recognize that horror. No empathy for the victims. No support for the heroic women confronting Nassar in court, in full view of TV cameras, recounting the hell he put them through. No acknowledgement that the university could have, should have, stopped this monster years ago.
Instead, we get a throw-staff-under-the-bus statement from Simon, who claims she told her people to “play it straight up” when the reports of Nassar’s evil acts emerged years ago.
Then there’s the stunningly heartless statement from MSU’s Board of Trustees on Friday essentially complaining about people calling the university “tone-deaf, unresponsive and insensitive” when they believe MSU “has listened and heard the victims” and has taken the bold move of … wait for it … asking the Attorney General for a review.
Then the trustees dumped a truckload of road salt in the wound by declaring Simon “is the right leader for the university and has our support.”
To which Simon, given a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that she and the university really aren’t tone-deaf, unresponsive and insensitive, said this: “I continue to appreciate the confidence of the Board and the many people who have reached out to me, and to them, who have the best interests of MSU at heart. I have always done my best to lead MSU and I will continue to do so today and tomorrow.”
Think about that phrase: “The best interests of MSU.”
Those interests apparently have nothing to do with supporting the victims of sexual assault. Those interests apparently have nothing to do with empathy and compassion for women who have been traumatized.
What those “best interests” do involve, it appears, is MSU not giving a damn about those women.
As a public relations professional who has counseled clients—and at times personally stood—before the business end of microphones, cameras and reporter’s notebooks in crisis situations, I understand the discomfort. I get the anxiety. But none of that excuses what’s fundamental to the practice of PR: truth, transparency, accountability, empathy, ethics, and a sincere willingness to listen, learn and take positive action.
Michigan State University demonstrates none of that.
I’m far from the first communicator to call out MSU on this debacle. (This spot-on analysis by PR guru Matt Friedman is worth your time.) Yet the tone-deaf behavior goes on. Maybe the lawyers are running the game, because the alternative is more disheartening: people in my field coaching Simon and her staff with the most unethical, outrageous counsel imaginable.
Lou Anna Simon must own this tragedy and resign. Every trustee should exit as quickly as feasible. Every person who knew about Nassar and did nothing should be fired. New leadership should step in, acknowledge the mistakes, own the pain, and start listening to and working with the victims.
Healing will take a very long time. It’s way past time for Simon and MSU to get the healing started.