USA Gymnastics’ Errors Form a Primer in Crisis Mismanagement

With so many examples of how not to navigate crises in the news, you’d think more brands and organizations would know the basics of managing them. While many do, the outlier that fails to be transparent, communicate clearly with stakeholders and think deeply about the court of public opinion often produces a tone-deaf response. In turn their brand or organization is saddled with awful news coverage that tarnishes its reputation at the precise moment it needs help.

Aly Raisman

Such is the case with USA Gymnastics (USAG), the organization that runs the country’s gymnastics program and reports to the U.S. Olympics Committee (USOC). Its mishandling of the Larry Nassar scandal is a primer for communicators about what not to do during a crisis.

[For an update, please see the bottom of this post.]

The bad facts of USAG’s scandal are well known: former team doctor Nassar sexually abused hundreds of female gymnasts for decades under USAG’s watch, and perhaps with its board’s knowledge. Numerous gymnasts, including recent gold medal winners Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, have come forward to claim that over the years they’d complained about Nassar to USAG and USOC officials. The gymnasts allege the organizations did nothing in response.

This scandal made headlines late in August 2018, yet stories about Nassar began running in the Indianapolis Star  in August 2016. Allegations around Nassar have marinated for years.

Spread of Scandal

The scandal has touched several group besides USAG, including the USOC and Michigan State University (MSU),

Simone Biles

where Nassar was employed. They’ve shared some pretty poor crisis management. In this light it’s hard to avoid mentioning the NCAA, which made a colossal error when it ignored the general welfare of student-athletes and exonerated MSU in the Nassar case, essentially on a technicality.

The fallout at USOC hit CEO Scott Blackmun, who resigned in February in the wake of reports that he and his board dragged their feet for years on tips they received about Nassar. In what seemed to be the height of inauthenticity, USOC’s statement claimed Blackmun was stepping down for health reasons and praised his work. While it’s true that Blackmun’s fighting cancer, the optics were poor. He left to avoid allegations that USOC had knowledge of Nassar’s activities and chose to ignore it. Creating more bad blood, nobody from USOC attended the court session where gymnasts castigated Nassar for his crimes. USOC eventually apologized for that.

MSU Doing Better

Though its crisis management faltered badly at times, MSU seems to have found its footing. Several senior officials, including MSU president Lou Anna Simon and medical dean Dr. William Strampel, have resigned or were fired. Apologies were issued promptly and a $500 million payout to 333 victimized athletes was reached.

(Of course, how the state university will find the money to pay the settlement remains up for debate. Will the taxpayers of Michigan or MSU tuition-payers foot the bill? Should be interesting.)

Dog to Help

Most recently, MSU unveiled a $3 million plan to keep its athletes safe that includes 39 new staff positions and a mandatory chaperone policy in certain health care exams. The October announcement even included mention of a black labrador named Justice, who’s available for “hugs, kisses and belly rubs” as part of MSU’s sexual assault therapy offering. On paper, at least, MSU seems to be handling the crisis correctly. Finally.

Bono Not So Bueno

On the down side, it’s difficult to give a passing grade to USAG’s crisis management, as the latest news makes clear. Yesterday (Oct. 16), USAG interim president/CEO Mary Bono resigned. The former House member and widow of Sonny Bono was appointed Oct. 12. Her 4-day tenure provides a bevy of lessons for crisis managers.

H.R.-P.R. Alliance: USAG took heat for Bono’s appointment on two fronts. One was Bono’s association with a former employer, the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which advised USAG during the early days of the Nassar scandal.

It seems certain Bono had little or nothing to do with the law firm’s work in the Nassar case. In fact, USAG issued a statement saying so. In issuing the statement, however, USAG showed its ignorance and trumpeted its tone-deafness.

Considering the charged atmosphere, public opinion on this one was unlikely to be on the side of Bono and USAG. A PR pro should have intervened and counseled USAG’s board that in the court of public opinion facts don’t always matter—perception does.

Bono’s association with a firm that worked for MSU’s defense should have eliminated her from being a viable candidate for the position. H.R. and P.R. should have collaborated to squash the appointment. Instead, tweets from Raisman did the work.

Consider Stakeholders: Another crisis-management tactic urges brands to keep internal and external stakeholders informed. USAG should have done even more. Given the high profile of Raisman, Biles and other victims, the gymnasts should have been consulted early about the potential of the Bono appointment. Based on the tone of her tweet, Raisman was not consulted.

Connect the Dots: Another source of angst was a Bono tweet from September that showed her blacking out the swoosh on a pair of Nike sneakers in protest of the apparel maker’s use of Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson for its brand. Part of the PR pro’s job in a crisis is to present views to the board that can be expected to emanate from the public.

Since the very popular Biles is a Nike spokesperson, Bono’s anti-Kaepernick stance was almost sure cause a rift. It did.

Again, Bono’s tweet should have given the USAG board pause before hiring her. She eventually removed the tweet and apologized. The damage to Bono’s position was done, however.

A side note about USAG’s board. It’s new. The entire board (18 members at the time) resigned in late January 2018, days after Nassar was sentenced to serve up to 175 years in prison on seven sexual assault charges. Far from an angel in this situation, USOC demanded the resignations. Unfortunately the Bono fiasco indicates the new board is cut from the same cloth as the old one.

Situational Awareness: Bono’s ouster was far from an isolated incident. She is the fourth senior official to leave USAG in the past six months. Bono replaced CEO Kerry Perry, who quit after nine months on the job.

As we noted, every member of the USAG board is new. The organization remains in crisis. Considering this, as well as the awful facts of the Nassar court case, USAG should have attempted to go above and beyond with its interim president/CEO appointment.

It’s an understatement to say USAG needs an overhaul of its image and perhaps yet another new board. As more details emerge, it’s possible that USOC will need the same.

Update, October 18, 2018 

In the above post we mentioned how the rot of the USAG scandal had spread to other organizations. In the list of groups we mentioned we failed to include the Karolyi Ranch for gymnastics, the famed training site for U.S. gymnasts. Former U.S. gymnastics coaches Béla Károlyi and Márta Károlyi own the ranch.

Three weeks ago former USAG president Steve Penny was charged with removing documents from the ranch pertaining to the Texas investigation of Nassar. Penny was arrested yesterday while on vacation with his family in Tennessee.

Penny claims he didn’t know of the charges against him.

Reports have documents being removed from the ranch and sent to Penny at USAG headquarters in Indiana. The documents would have helped authorities investigate Nassar and “assisted with the investigation of other offenses that may have occurred at the Karolyi Ranch,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement, according to CNN.

Penny resigned in March 2017 under a cloud of allegations about gymnasts being abused. Kerry Perry replaced him in December 2017. She resigned in September 2018. Mary Bono replaced her and lasted just four days, resigning this week.

USAG leased the ranch for years.

The Károlyis were set to sell the ranch to USAG, but the deal fell through in July 2017 when reports surfaced that Nassar molested gymnasts at the facility. Biles made such an allegation. It also is alleged that Nassar manipulated female gymnasts at the ranch by sneaking food to their rooms. Béla Károlyi is known for severely restricting the calorie intake of gymnasts he’s training.

In June, Nassar was indicted in Texas for his alleged crimes at the ranch, including six counts of sexual assault of a child. Texas began its investigation of Nassar after attorneys in the MSU case made allegations about his crimes while at the ranch.

That same month the Károlyis were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. In January 2018, USAG said it was cutting all ties to the couple.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein