Friday, January 21, 2022

MSU Communications changes with increase in media requests

April 26, 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 —

Throughout the sexual abuse cases against ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, former President Lou Anna K. Simon’s resignation, protests from the MSU community and other occurrences on campus, MSU’s Communications and Brand Strategy office, or CABS, has received a high volume of media requests.

CABS is MSU’s central communications team and is responsible for handling requests from media outlets and other members of the MSU community who seek information about a particular subject.

Amid campus controversies and the national spotlight’s shift toward MSU, CABS has made changes to how the office operates.

“MSU’s media procedures ensure consistency and coordination of information released to the media and foster positive relations with media outlets — local, regional, national and international,” the CABS website reads.

Heather Swain, vice president for communications and brand strategy, said via email CABS’ mission is to “increase visibility, esteem, and affinity for Michigan State University.”

Throughout the cases against Nassar, inquiries from the media have increased, Swain said. 

“MSU saw an increase in contacts from media during specific points in the Nassar criminal proceedings and has experienced an elevated volume of requests from media overall in relation to this matter,” she said via email. “During Nassar’s sentencing hearing, call and email volume was so high CABS established a specific media line and email box to allow us to better manage media requests.”

The media communications phone number for CABS has recently received many media requests, journalists are now asked to leave a message.

Emily Guerrant, vice president and university spokesperson, said CABS responds to interview requests from journalists depending on availability and the type of interview requested. 

“Most media requests CABS receives are not for interviews but rather are requests for information or for a comment on behalf of the institution,” Swain said.

Guerrant said she has noticed CABS’ media inquiries have been high recently.

“I’m not even a month on the job yet, so it’s hard to see what’s normal,” she said. “It’s been a very intense media since I’ve been here, and who’s to say how long that will go on, so I’m kind of trying to evaluate that.”

She said figuring out how to connect the reporter with what they’re looking for is usually the office’s goal when it comes to responding to media inquiries.

“Whether or not that’s just us, or setting up an interview with someone else on campus, someone that’s more of an expert on that topic,” she said. “We kind of help to make those determinations and triage the opportunities and then work with the reporters to get them the information.”

Depending on the situation, Guerrant said CABS tries to respond via phone or email to fulfill the media requests.

CABS has also recently experienced changes within its staff. Employees in the CABS office now report to Guerrant and Kathleen Wilbur, the executive vice president for governmental and external relations.

MSU Today announced the appointment of Wilbur and Guerrant on March 6.

Guerrant said she is beginning to rebuild a new culture at MSU through CABS by assessing the current staff. 

“I’ve been evaluating the current, you know, staff both from a capacity standpoint and also just, you know, in relationship to the volume of media that is coming in,” Guerrant said. “I’m trying to get a good understanding of what would be an appropriate structure.”

Guerrant said the sheer number of media requests is high compared to the way the CABS team is structured, which is something Interim President John Engler has asked her to evaluate.

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“I would say, yesterday for example, we had inquiries from more than 20 media outlets,” she said. “It’s structured in a way to promote the different work that’s happening in the colleges." 

Under a previous structure, Guerrant said there were three people responsible for handling the day-to-day media responses. 

However, Guerrant said she doesn’t expect too much to change.

“I don’t think our our overall media process is going to change that much,” she said. “I just have a lot of media to get to every day, and that’s not ideal because you guys (reporters) are working on deadline and often need information quickly, so getting a better idea of the volume and figuring out how we can handle it.”

In February, Kent Cassella, associate vice president for media communications and senior public relations strategist at MSU, resigned from his position to "seek new opportunities," according to a statement from Cassella. He had worked at MSU since 2007. 

“I think that they (CABS) have a great team,” Guerrant said. “There’s a lot of strong professionals, so I’m excited to be a part of it.”

What makes a good communications team

Jeff Hunt, an expert in public relations and crisis management and co-founder of PulsePoint Group, has worked with university communications at several locations, including Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas. 

Hunt said he has helped respond to several issues and crises during his time at these universities, including Penn State’s sexual assault crisis, which broke in 2011.

“A few people have asked me questions about the comparison between Penn State and MSU,” Hunt said. “My overall reaction is that in a crisis situation, particularly in this day and age, things move very fast.” 

Hunt said communicators at a university, especially in a crisis situation, must respond to requests quickly and effectively, and even when a communications branch does not have all of the facts in a situation, Hunt said it’s still necessary to respond with every piece of information available in order to demonstrate transparency. 

“Sometimes you don’t know all that you need to know and ... sometimes that becomes an excuse for why, you know, communications may not occur,” he said. “But even if you don’t know all that you need to know, you can at least tell people what you’re doing to find out what you want to know.”

Hunt said he hasn't studied every move MSU has made and said he doesn't know how responsive or unresponsive CABS has been to media requests, but said CABS, from what he has seen, has responded to media requests at a slow pace during the Nassar crisis. 

“Based on my observations. Again, looking from the outside and not being in their situation, it shows to me that they really were very slow, particularly compared to Penn State,” he said. “And they don’t appear to have been very transparent and as a result of that, it, you know, a lot of speculation filled that vacuum and a lot of misunderstanding.”

Guerrant said it is “certainly a challenge” to respond to all media requests. 

“Often, there are times when it’s the same topic,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to time when an inquiry comes in to do some research.”

Hunt said sometimes leadership changes can affect how communications or public relations departments respond to requests.

“My overall observation is that they haven’t handled it very well. ... I think the first thing, and the most important thing, is for an organization to be culturally aligned about how they’re going to approach issues like this," Hunt said. “Culturally, if you have an alignment around being transparent and open and authentic in your communications, then I would suggest moving as quickly as you can, you know, gather the facts."

Hunt said whether the response is an email, a statement, a press release or a press conference, communications teams such as CABS should find a way to get information out to the media and the public.

“That usually depends on the severity of the issue, but in a situation like this, you know, clearly I would have expected a press conference,” he said. “And I would have expected that press conference to include, you know, the senior-most leadership of the university and perhaps even some external, you know, Board of Trustees.”

In Hunt’s experience working for Penn State during their sexual assault crisis, he said university communications should have the ability to show transparency, act well in the moment, take action to ensure the crisis doesn’t happen again and pass along the lessons they’ve learned to others. 

Hunt said public relations is still an effective method to getting information across to members of the community. 

“Public relations is still a very viable profession,” he said. “People really expect, you know, how to be transparent in all types of communication. So, the idea of trying to spin your way out of a situation like this just isn’t possible anymore.”

Hunt said once MSU is past the immediacy of the Nassar crisis and the litigation that has been a result of it, he expects MSU will begin to think about the steps to be taken to ensure a situation like this never happens again. 

“Another question is, and I think it will ask itself, I think, is, 'What could we have done better from a communications perspective to better communicate with all of our team constituents, not just the media?'” Hunt said. “Because I think there are a lot of people who are angry.”

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