Latest MSU Mess Shows Reality Denial

There’s a reality that is too often ignored, even scoffed at, by organizations of all sizes, in all lines of work. We are seeing it right now after a sexual misconduct investigation into Michigan State University’s $95 million head football coach Mel Tucker was revealed in a USA Today story posted just hours after Tucker led the school’s team on the sidelines.

Here’s fantasy: With good policies and good luck, the news that you hope, maybe even pray, will not someday be public will stay private until such time as you decide that you want it to be public.

Here’s reality: The “forward” button exists. Copy and paste exists. Phones with cameras and texting exist. Frustrated and/or discouraged employees exist. Insiders, even board members, with agendas exist. Journalists answer their calls and emails. Private information inherently in the public interest inevitably won’t stay private for as long as you want it to.

The latest at MSU is a case in point. According to the latest news reports, university representatives confirm that top officials, including the statewide popularly-elected governance board, learned about the Title IX complaint in December. The investigation from an outside attorney was complete in July. It was somehow decided that there would be no hearing, as required, for Tucker until the football team’s off week in October. Did they really think the story – this particular story about this particular coach at this particular university – wouldn’t leak over more than two months?

This is a situation we have encountered with clients, including within recent months. One CEO refused to believe one of his board members would share confidential information with a journalist (it happened). Another CEO refused to announce a planned sale, listening instead to a real estate broker, presumably crossing fingers that employees wouldn’t notice anything when tours of the building for potential buyers were taking place (they did, and rumors ramped up quickly). We know of other situations where trusted insiders turned their Zoom cameras off and took photos of information on their screens to share inside and outside of organizations. You need an inordinate amount of luck to prevent these scenarios, and others, from happening.

The answer is simple to articulate here but very hard, in real life, to actually do. Tell your audiences what they expect to know, as soon as you can, with your framing and messaging. It’s called “getting in front of the story.”

It’s hard because of situations I remember such as one time when some executive said, to that counsel, “I know that’s what PR people like to say but…” It’s not what we like to say, it’s actually the best advice in many situations. Of course, it has to be balanced in execution with legal considerations. But any other choice is tantamount to leaving it up to luck. Wouldn’t you rather be good than lucky?

The sportswriters and others are on social media picking apart the university’s handling of this, offering plenty of valid questions and opinions, so I won’t go too far here, quite literally from my armchair. But, as we have written before, that is now part of the story for high-profile organizations.

Of course, it would have been really hard to suspend a football coach on the eve of a season and announce that he’s under investigation for sexual misconduct. But was it even discussed? Maybe there would have been a chance the university could have staked out a position on the matter and gotten out a message, rather than scrambling to have a non-answer press conference leaving a university community in a state that is, as one member put it, “so upsetting.”