Michigan State University

Research: Was the Nassar scandal too ‘wicked’ for damage control?

Researchers explore ‘image repair response’ at Michigan State University 


FRIDAY, April 9 — A recent research article suggests that Michigan State University may never fully recover from backlash tied to convicted former sports doctor Larry Nassar. Some scandals are simply too “wicked” and “leave even the best leaders speechless,” the study found.

The article, by a trio of researchers from University of Louisville, Laurentian University and Indiana University, examined a dozen Facebook posts from MSU, including  about 2,500 comments,  during Nassar’s trial and sentencing hearing from Jan. 16-24, 2018. It was also published in a recent edition of Communication & Sport and is available in full here.

Researchers set out to explore the various image-repair strategies employed by the university on social media at the time, as well as how people responded to the attempted damage control. 

“Despite knowing that you will be criticized no matter what strategy you employ, appearing apologetic, demonstrating a willingness to change your organizational structure and calling on current fans to unite behind you appears to be a much wiser approach to image repair compared to denial, evasion of responsibility and/or reducing offensiveness,” the article states.

The takeaway: Decades of Nassar’s abuse may have been so horrific that even the most prepared organization would have struggled to find the right answers. Still, MSU had no choice but to attempt to repair its image. And it may have handled things in the best way possible. 

It concludes: “MSU’s image-repair efforts may never and, arguably, should never be over.”

The Facebook posts reviewed in the article included a combination of proven damage control strategies for institutions facing a public relations crisis. The most common — and effective — technique was simple corrective action, marked by acknowledging a transgression and taking measures to prevent it from occurring. Researchers found half of MSU’s posts included efforts to atone for past mistakes, like one that touted the creation of the “Healing Assistance Fund.”

Other posts seemed to deflect from the trial, emphasizing positive news like the university’s top ranking in Times Higher Education’s “World Reputation Rankings.” Other strategies included “rallying” students to “move beyond” or move on from the scandal. Another technique described as “mortification” also included a direct apology, which garnered the widest online response.

That post included text that read: “We hear you. We see you. We are sorry for your pain and grief. We commend you for your bravery and strength. We are committed to making MSU a safe and inclusive community for all.” About 6,800 online engagements were tied to that post alone.

And though the most popular post, the study found that most people still didn’t “buy in” to the university’s damage control — though it may have been the most effective option on the table.

“Based on the current findings, if an organization wants to elicit engagement via social media following an egregious and highly public transgression, the use of mortification and corrective action appear to be a necessity,” the article found, labeling them both “effective” approaches.

A spokeswoman for Michigan State University issued a statement in response to the article.

“As supporters of university research and its importance to both society and the evolution of communications efforts, we understand why examining this topic and actions are important,” she said, noting plans to review the article. “Especially in crisis situations, it’s important to reflect back on actions we took at different times and evaluate how we communicated to audiences.”

The article was also designed to examine Facebook as a tool for image repair. Researchers found that users still focused the blame on MSU for “mishandling” the situation. And while there was a clear call for MSU to change it culture, take ownership of its mistakes and to become a leader in dealing with sexual assault on campus, “it remains to be seen whether they truly espouse the image-repair tactics they promoted via Facebook during the Nassar hearing.”


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