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