The Fearey Group PR Failure #11: Failing to Stick the Landing — the Plight of USA Gymnastics


Another Month, Another Blunder.
Is it just us or did November completely sneak up on you, too? The end of the year is near and as we inch closer to 2019, we’re thinking about all the ways to turn over a new leaf. And you guessed it, it’s time to reflect on another PR failure. Each month, we analyze a recent blunder to gain insight and learn some lessons along the way. After all, failure is a part of every day life. But as uncomfortable and humbling as it can be to recognize your mistakes, it’s a crucial component for growth and understanding.
You can read about last month’s blunder here.
This month, we turned our attention to the USA Gymnastics — an organization that has been entangled in a string of ongoing crises for awhile now and just can’t seem to regain its balance.
The Story
When the whole world is looking at your next move, the pressure is on — as was the case for USA Gymnastics. If you recall, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to prison after he was convicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse spanning decades. More than 140 women came forward with their accounts of abuse, including Olympic medal-winning gymnasts Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles.
As the case unfolded, some ugly truths about the embattled organization were revealed, including how much the leaders of USA Gymnastics knew about the abuse scandals, the lack of response to those who did try to come forward, and the wrongful protection of Larry Nassar for years, resulting in more gymnasts suffering abuse.
Well, it looks like the once-esteemed organization has another controversy on its hands: finding a new CEO. On October 16, former Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono resigned as the interim President and CEO, replacing Kerry Perry who was scrutinized for the handling of the sexual abuse scandal. She held the position for five days. Upon Bono’s hiring, there was already some backlash. Although Bono reportedly wasn’t involved with the Nassar case, she worked for a law firm that knew about the allegations against Nassar but declined to reveal them.
And then there was the tweet.
Let’s back up a minute. In September, Nike presented Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, as the new face of their “Just Do It” campaign. It sparked debate on both sides , some celebrating the ad and Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem at games in protest of police brutality, and some denouncing the ad —calling for a boycott of Nike and claiming Kaepernick showed disrespect toward the flag and country.
In response to the controversial Nike ad, Bono tweeted a photo of her covering up the Nike swoosh on a pair of shoes, so we know where she stands.
The now-deleted tweet spurred a lot of reaction. Particularly from one gold medal gymnast: Simone Biles.
Just four days after assuming the role as interim president, Bono resigned from the position stating, “It is with profound regret, coupled with a deep love for the sport of gymnastics and respect for those who aspire to be great gymnasts, that I today tendered my resignation as the interim CEO Of USA Gymnastics.”
Now, the organization plagued with ongoing troubles, is looking for new leadership. What could have been done differently?
What Went Wrong: Three Failing Lessons
1. Insensitive, Tone-Deaf Messaging
If you read Bono’s tweet and immediately thought, “How did she think that was a good idea?” we’re with you. Regardless of Bono’s own opinion toward the Nike advertisement, as a leader of an organization, you’re often expected to be a voice that represents all of those you lead. Even more so when those in your organization are sponsored by the company you’re attacking, (Nike is a sponsor of Simone Biles). Her tweet drew a definitive line in the sand, showing where Bono, and by extension USAG, stood in the debate over the NFL and police brutality protest — a far-reaching and complex issue. When sending out a message as controversial as this, you risk not only losing the trust of the people within your organization, but the public perception of your organization and brand as well.
Think before you tweet, always.
2. Poor Optics for an Organization Trying to Do Damage Control
Since posting the tweet, Bono issued an apology, stating, “I deeply regret posting the tweet because I respect everyone’s views and their fundamental right to express them.” Bono argued that the tweet would not affect how she approaches the position within USA Gymnastics and how she wants to work toward changing the culture to become a more open, safe and positive environment for everyone.
Well, words remain empty until proven by action and Bono’s action pretty much sealed the deal. It says a lot about an organization’s dedication to change (or lack thereof) when choosing a leader who seemed to lack the foresight of understanding how one tweet could send a negative message that affects an entire brand.
3. Failing to Lead with a New Vision
USA Gymnastics is one of the most popular and successful Olympic sports in the country. Any organization, especially with this size and scope, requires a thorough crisis communications plan adept at responding to concerns and anticipating new ones.
With the hire of Mary Bono came some immediate criticism. It’s important when an organization is trying to move forward to carefully consider all kinds of perceptions and backlash that might occur. Failing to strike a positive new tone amid a persistent crisis negatively impacts the ability to move forward.
Reassess and Regroup
The lesson here is to do your due diligence as an organization and reevaluate the core values and culture you want to live and breathe. Without identifying who you are and what you stand for, you put your entire organization and all its stakeholders in a vulnerable position. Transparency is key. When you have your own athletes, like Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, condemning the leadership at the highest level, there are some issues that must be addressed.
Now with USAG looking for a new interim, and eventually, permanent CEO and President, it would be in USAG’s best interest to handle this new hire with the utmost care. Vet your candidates, establish a tone you want to set and implement the messaging strategy you plan to roll out. Then, when that is executed, go back and reevaluate your tactics and the measures taken. Are you reaching the right audience with your new message and vision? Are you gaining the trust of your athletes and public back? What additional steps can you take to prevent further issues from emerging?
We’ll see who USAG decides to name as the new leadership and fervently hope the organization will finally regain its footing and lead with a more transparent, open and safe vision for all.
Until next time.
Aaron Blank
President & CEO, The Fearey Group
For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at www.feareygroup.com.
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