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Aly Raisman Gives USA Gymnastics a Lesson in Crisis Communication

Published on February 2, 2018, at 3:20 p.m.
by Greta Banks.

You have probably heard of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who was recently sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault . It would be hard not to at this point. His sentencing hearing, which concluded Jan. 24, lasted eight days and made national news each of those days.

Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Two-time Olympic gymnast and captain to both teams Aly Raisman was among the 156 victims to speak at the sentencing hearing. In recent months, Raisman’s voice has become one of the loudest in the discussion about Nassar, and she has become one of USAG’s greatest critics. While the majority of her 13-minute statement focused on her own abuse, she dedicated a significant portion to calling out USAG’s administrators on their failures and their fault in the matter.

While the public relations rules of crisis communication are not hard and fast, there are certain guidelines that, when followed, can definitely help mitigate the effects of a crisis. Parts of Raisman’s statement, which are quoted below, exemplify some of the major ways in which USAG has failed to effectively communicate throughout the fallout with Nassar.

“A few days ago, USA Gymnastics put out a statement attributed to its president and CEO Kerry Perry, saying she came to listen to the courageous women. … This sounds great, Ms. Perry, but at this point, talk is cheap. You left midway through the day, and no one has heard from you or the board.”

“Continuing to issue statements of empty promises thinking that will pacify us will no longer work. Yesterday, USA Gymnastics announced that it was terminating its lease at the Ranch, where so many of us were abused. I am glad that it is no longer a national team training site, but USA Gymnastics neglected to mention that they had athletes training there the day they released the statement. USA Gymnastics, where is the honesty? Where is the transparency? Why must the manipulation continue?”

“Neither USA Gymnastics nor the USOC have reached out to express sympathy or even offer support. Not even to ask, how did this happen? What do you think we can do to help?”

– Aly Raisman in her Jan. 19 statement at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing.

Here are the biggest PR takeaways from Raisman’s statement, and previous statements made by USAG:

Apologies to those harmed need to be timely and sincere.
This should be one of the first steps following a crisis. While USAG has released plenty of bland, unemotional statements saying that “USA Gymnastics is very sorry that any athlete was harmed by Larry Nassar,” according to Raisman, it has neglected to personally apologize, or apologize in any meaningful way, to her or to other athletes. In a case like this, where the effects on the victims are so personal, a personal apology is important. In failing to effectively apologize to the athletes affected, the organization has left itself open to a slew of anger and negative attention.

Your actions need to be reflective of your words.
If you put out a statement saying that you will attend something, you ought to attend all of it, and not just part. By not following through with what they have said, USAG’s administrators undermine the credibility of their statements, and lose the public’s trust.

Photo by gravel72 on Flickr

In another instance of such actions, USAG had the audacity to applaud McKayla Maroney, member of the 2012 Olympic team, on her “bravery and strength to come forward.” However, a lawsuit filed by Maroney weeks later revealed that she had been bound by a nondisclosure agreement with USAG as part of a settlement she made with it nearly a year earlier. According to the suit, Maroney alleges that USAG “had a plan to keep the sexual abuse of Nassar quiet, and allow Nassar to quietly leave USAG, further silencing his victims.”

Transparency is key in building trust.
When your statements are clearly misleading and manipulative, people aren’t going to trust them. When USAG announced it had terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch, it left out all mentions of the alleged ongoing training at the Ranch. Kerry Perry, president and CEO, even went so far as to say that “it has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December.”

However, since December, USAG continued to hold and schedule camps at the Karolyi Ranch. It wasn’t until three days after Simone Biles, reigning Olympic all-around champion, announced she was among Nassar’s victims, and expressed her distress at having to return to the ranch to train for her next Olympics, that USAG acted on the matter.

Photo by Greta Banks

Slow responses only allow for more time for the crisis to build.
After Maroney filed the lawsuit revealing that she was bound by a nondisclosure agreement, speculation brewed for weeks as to whether she would now be allowed to speak with others at Nassar’s sentencing without facing the $100,000 penalty. While USAG responded to the lawsuit, it neglected to disclose whether it would hold her to the agreement. It wasn’t until after Chrissy Teigen decided to join the conversation, bringing it to the attention of her nearly 10 million Twitter followers, that USAG stated it would not seek damages against Maroney for speaking about her abuse.

Even now, after Raisman and many others directly questioned USAG and further alleged wrongdoing by the governing body of gymnastics, USAG has yet to respond to any of their individual statements. In the meantime, Raisman continues to criticize USAG for its role in Nassar’s abuse, and how it has responded.

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