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Report: Firm charged MSU $500K to monitor survivor, journalist social media

March 29, 2018
Hannah Administration Building on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News
Hannah Administration Building on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News —

A public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, charged MSU for more than $500,000 in January for work involving monitoring social media attention surrounding ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's sex abuse cases.

Weber Shandwick, a New York-based public relations firm, charged MSU $517,343 for more than 1,440 hours of work, according to a report from the Lansing State Journal Wednesday. The monitoring included social media activity from survivors of Nassar, journalists covering the case and others.

Eighteen different Weber Shandwick employees had hourly rates from $200 to $600 per hour. Weber Shandwick's work with the university spanned from December 2017 to March 2018, according to an emailed statement from the firm.

According to a statement from Weber Shandwick Thursday, a majority of the work they did involved crisis counsel to address tragedy.

"While we normally don’t comment on our client assignments, we feel it’s important in the case of the news coverage of our work for Michigan State University because it does not accurately reflect our work," according to the emailed statement. "We were not hired to monitor victims’ social media accounts. As with any assignment, we forwarded to our clients traditional media and publicly available social media pertaining to the horrible tragedy at MSU, including statements made online by the victims."

The firm also wrote that the victims are the most important voices in the conversation.

Attorney Stephen Drew, who represents some survivors of Nassar's abuse, said the news is the latest in a long line of actions taken by MSU that are insulting to survivors.

"This is another way of slapping them in the face," Drew said. "They're spending this much money on that, as opposed to trying to focus on their feelings, things of that nature? It's tremendously upsetting."

Drew also criticized MSU Interim President John Engler for comments about how settlements with Nassar survivors will result in raised tuition.

"How much money are you spending to investigate, to fight, as opposed to trying to make these things right and move forward?" Drew said. "To victim-blame them by going on social media and seeing what they're trying to say, well, what reason is there to do that other then maybe to allegedly attack their credibility, to try to use something against them? That's insane, it's insane."

Communications staff at MSU have monitored and analyzed news stories about Nassar, USA Gymnastics and related court cases since the day after the original Indianapolis Star report that first raised allegations against Nassar was published, the State Journal reports. 

MSU spokespeople and university officials were emailed summaries of articles and social media activity. Daily recaps were sent to former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, the MSU Board of Trustees and attorneys, both internal and external. 

MSU Communications and Brand Strategy provided a statement from MSU on the Weber Shandwick contract Thursday afternoon.

“Michigan State University hired Weber Shandwick in December 2017 to provide crisis communications counsel as well as additional media staffing to handle the high volume of communications tasks related to the Larry Nassar matter," MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant said via email. "The relationship ended in early March and we are no long working together."

Guerrant also pointed out "a majority of the work Weber completed for the university was related to crisis communications counsel."

Survivor Morgan McCaul said she's in disbelief MSU spent that amount of money on monitoring survivors and their families rather than monitoring the university's own employees. She said she and other survivors are "incredulous" about the situation.

"I am disgusted, I am outraged, my blood is boiling today," McCaul said. "I can't even believe that this is something that they thought was appropriate, let alone something that they spent that much money on."

McCaul is mentioned by name in snippets of emails from Weber Shandwick to MSU staff, published by the State Journal. 

"Maybe they should've monitored Dean Strampel with that money instead of survivors themselves," she said.

"They're trying to weaponize our own grief and trauma and self-expression against us, and truly, this might be one of the worst things that I've seen them do yet," McCaul said. "They've strategically tried to demonize survivors in the media, but now they're spying on us, and they're willing to do it at an insane cost."

Editor's note — This article was last updated on March 29 on 8:00 p.m. to include statements from MSU's Communications and Brand Strategy and PR firm Weber Shandwick and to re-word the headline.


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