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PR expert: MSU needs a concrete action plan to address sexual assault scandals, improve image

Jun 12, 2017

Michigan State University sports physician Larry Nassar is accused of sexually preying on athletes for decades. Now he's in jail facing federal and state charges. His accusers say they tried to bring their complaints to the university for years. Nassar was only let go last fall.

And now, four Spartan football players have been charged with criminal sexual conduct since January.

MSU is an institution in crisis.

Jeff Caponigro from Caponigro Public Relations and author of the book The Crisis Counselor joined Stateside to explain how an organization like Michigan State should deal with a mounting crisis and how they have dealt with it so far.

While Caponigro has helped hundreds of clients deal with crises over the years, he is very familiar with the challenges facing universities. He was a trustee at Central Michigan University from 2003-09 and chairman of CMU's board of trustees in 2008-09. He previously served on the board of trustees at Walsh college for nine years. He has also counseled many universities and community colleges on reputation and crisis issues during his career.

One of the biggest problems Caponigro sees with the MSU situation isn't just a more manageable isolated incident. Patterns are what you want to avoid. 

"Isolated incidents are one thing. I always look at [crises] like a tumor, in a way," Caponigro said. "Now you have a pattern, and this is what you want to try to avoid. You want to avoid patterns in crises.  If you can isolate the tumor and cut it out and extract it from the organization that's one thing, but if all of a sudden that tumor is spreading, that's when it becomes really lethal."

According to Caponigro, Michigan State's handling of these situations have been a "mixed bag" so far but he wants to see more.

"The questions that I have that are still out there, is what could have been done to avoid this from happening so that we can learn from it and what are we doing to ensure that this won't happen again," Caponigro said. "You haven't heard a lot of that. Maybe, number one, they don't know. And maybe, number two, sort of the jury is still out and what exactly they should do."

Listen to the full interview above to hear why lawsuits can complicate messaging to the public and how MSU's crises compare to the ones at schools like Penn State and Baylor University.

(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunesGoogle Play, or with this RSS link)