How Would You Grade Penn State's Use of Social Media in Crisis?

ChrisSyme
Chris Syme Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Posted on November 8th 2011

Penn State's storied football program is reeling under allegations of sexual abuse by a former coach. Several have been implicated in this mess (Sandusky indictment here) including the athletic director and business manager. Mike Greenberg ("Mike and Mike" on ESPN) called this the "worst crisis in college sports...ever" on his Tuesday morning radio show. As this crisis builds momentum, social media becomes the go-to destination for fans and concerned citizens that are angry, hurt, confused, and looking for answers. After an initial analysis of Penn State's use of social media in crisis, I thought it might be interesting  to grade their responses. 

1. Everybody's Talking...Nobody's Talking. The voices of fans and foes are plentiful online.  But what is missing is the official voice of Penn State. The athletic department website (as of Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. MST) had one short article announcing the AD's request to be put on administrative leave. Head coach Joe Paterno had a press conference scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, which has been cancelled by the university president. According to Paterno's son, the head coach wanted to answer some questions about the situation. This is a misstep by the university. When you don't get involved in driving the message initially, you will not have credibility when you finally do speak up. The university's silence indicates they do not understand the ebb and flow of crisis communications. Fans and foes are eager for a word...any word...from the university. The fact that PSU has not yet called a press conference or granted an interview on the matter since the story broke several days ago is violating the best rules of crisis management.  Grade: D+

Press releases  are not enough.  The university issued and official press release on Monday detailing the "letting go" of personnel involved in the case and also the steps that the university will take.  The university president is hiding behind the legal curtain circling the wagons. They have established an independent task force and will publish the findings (eventually) of that group. Even though that all sounds well and good, there is no attempt to address the immediate public concern.

2. Let the People Speak. One thing the athletic department has done right so far is not shut down their social media feeds (as of Tuesday morning). Comments are still allowed on both the official department Facebook page and the football  Facebook page. After an unofficial sentiment analysis of the comments on both pages, I found that reactions are still running on the positive side for the department. It is clear that the fans are heavily invested in the program, and have been expressing their support. It seems like PSU is curtailing attempts to hijack threads by organic means--letting the fans police the channel. There has been at least one allegation that people are being blocked from posting, but clearly the department is letting both sides vent their anger and concern. This is a good move. Grade: A

As of Tuesday morning, comments on the most recent Facebook post on the football page (dated Monday at 7:30 a.m.) are running almost three-to-one positive for the program even though many of the positive posts express concern or anger in their posts. One interesting trend to note is that devoted fans are possessive of their turf, some asking non-fans to find another place to vent their frustrations.

3. This Too Shall Pass. Panic will kill crisis mitigation. So far, the football Facebook page has a higher rate of interaction than normal, but that's to be expected. As of this writing, there were over 1000 actions on the most recent post on the Nebraska game, including likes and comments. In the first 24 hours of the post, only 17 of those comments  (in the first four hours) were actually about the football game. The rest were a discussion of the crisis. To their credit, the athletic department is letting the people grieve and express anger. Granted, they are not present, but an analysis of their regular posts shows that Penn State does not have a history of being conversational on Facebook. If this crisis follows the pattern of most, there will be an initial period of interaction which will taper. It looks like they are betting on that pattern by continuing to let people talk. Grade: B

The only reason I didn't give them a higher grade is because the university still is not talking to their fans and foes. They are just broadcasting their messages at this point. There needs to be an expression of sorrow acknowledging the pain of fans, friends, foes, and the public in general.  There is a way to express that sorrow without getting yourself in legal trouble, and Penn State needs to come forward and recognize the collective suffering of people who are emotionally attached to this issue. Until they do that, they have not won the right to be in the conversation. Once they do that, the healing can begin.

How would you grade their social media effort so far?

ChrisSyme

Chris Syme

Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Chris Syme's latest book, Practice Safe Social, is a leading resource on how to use social media responsibly. Her agency, CKSyme Media Group specializes in crisis and reputation communications, training, and social media services. See her website at www.cksyme.com. Follow her on Twitter @cksyme

 

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Comments

Posted on November 9th 2011 at 1:25AM

Excellent article.  For me, the most important part is your final paragraph - tackling the legal issue.  All too often, lawyers and/or insurers prevent communication for fear of liability.  Yet, over and over again, the evidence is that if a crisis is badly managed, the damage to the company’s reputation far exceeds the financial cost of the disaster - including possible costs from legal or insurance claims. Secondly, businesses that communicate effectively during a crisis may win new credibility and higher levels of respect than they had before - outweighing any financial losses. As you say, there are ways of saying sorry that do not make you liable for what has happened. Weak leaders who hide behind lawyers or insurers, instead of taking control, are in the wrong job. 

ChrisSyme
Posted on November 9th 2011 at 6:35PM

Agreed Joanna--thanks for the thoughts.

Posted on November 9th 2011 at 4:14AM

I completely agree that the best thing you can do during a crisis is to speak openly about it right away. I think it's smart to at least acknowledge the crisis and address your fans, the university definitely should have had Joe Paterno speak at the press conference. I agree that it's smart for them to keep their social media open so fans or foes can write comments, but what good is that going to do unless the people involved address them?

ChrisSyme
Posted on November 10th 2011 at 2:15AM

I think there is a catharsis involved in letting people speak to each other--providing a public forum where a conversation can take place. I can't tell you how many organizations have shut down their social media feeds during a crisis. It is a brave and smart move by Penn State to continue to let people talk. They could have easily gone in and disabled comments. What is most heart warming is that this morning the football page posted a request from the students to promote a "Blueout" this Saturday against Nebraska that promotes prevent child abuse. Finally, somebody there is taking the bull by the horns. https://www.facebook.com/PSUFball

ChrisSyme
Posted on November 10th 2011 at 3:07PM

Just as an update, both the Penn State official athletic Facebook page and the football page are following the issue--choosing what they are posting. This is a great move by the athletic department--still giving people a chance to talk and giving them strategic issues. Good job. Grade: A+. This will make a great case study. 

tereiss
Posted on November 14th 2011 at 2:50AM

The hardest part of crisis management is timing, and Penn State's athletic department definitely needs to speak up immediately. This is not the type of situation to wait until everything calms down. Penn State needs to communicate with the public immediately, taking interviews, scheduling press conferences, and distributing press releases. This is the only way that citizens will begin to calm down.

Austin Clark
Posted on November 29th 2011 at 7:19AM

I think that both you and Penn St. really nailed the importance of keeping message boards open during a time of crisis. People always have and will continue to need an outlet to vent their frustration and emotion. Overall, you provided an excellent analysis, and in a way that is clear and concise.