Penn State University Football: Social media and crisis management lessons learned

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Penn St Fball logoThe jury reached a verdict in the high-profile Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse trial. Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach was found guilty on 45 of 48 charges. Sandusky faces potentially hundreds of years in prison for molesting 10 boys over 15 years.

The story has been at the forefront of the news cycle many days since it broke in November 2011. There are many parts of this difficult story that have been analyzed for months in the media.

I wanted to take a look at a part of the story that has not gotten much attention - the social media aspects.

Imagine you are responsible for social media within an organization faced with a major crisis like this one. How would you handle it? How would the senior executives handle it?

The right approach is to be honest and forthright. Communicate the facts quickly and don’t hide. Assign a visible spokesperson. Silence and “no comment” are the enemy.

I spoke with Kelly Burns, a recent Penn State MBA graduate. While a student, Kelly interned with Penn State Football Marketing & Promotions from May 2009 through April 2012, and for the past three summers (2009-2011) she ran the Penn State Football Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“I was very lucky to have the opportunity to assist in developing the Penn State Football Facebook page back when it first launched in summer 2009,” Kelly says. She posted content (information, photos, videos, and the like) that fans enjoyed. “Having the opportunity to interact with Penn State Football fans was incredible because Penn State Football has a history rich in tradition and 'Success with Honor,' and its fans literally wear their pride on their sleeves.”

The Penn State Football Facebook page, currently with nearly 350,000 likes, targeted students, recruits to the football program, alumni, and Penn State football fans in the community. Kelly also developed the @PennStateFball Twitter feed. She read each tweet and Facebook comment and responded personally to many. In her role she frequently put in 40 hours per week on a voluntary basis (!!).

Then the story broke

The grand jury investigation was initiated in the spring of 2008 but had been kept quiet. In the summer of 2011 Kelly was told to remove photos of Sandusky from the Facebook page.

On November 4, 2011 Sandusky was indicted and the next day he was arrested and charged and the story went worldwide instantly. “Our Facebook and Twitter lit up but that was difficult because initially we were not allowed to post,” Kelly says. “We were not permitted to post anything about the scandal, nor were any other people working for the University. We were told to wait until Old Main [Penn State's administrative center on campus which includes the university president's office] made a statement before we could say anything. So we went completely dark.”

On November 11, the social media team was permitted to post about The Blue Ribbon Campaign against child abuse and then on November 16 they were allowed to post some simple messages about football but still nothing about the crisis itself was allowed. Even today, nothing about the scandal has ever been talked about on Penn State social media.

Fan engagement and trolls

“Penn State Football fans were never permitted to post directly onto the Facebook wall, but during this period fans were engaged on Facebook by commenting on posts that were already there, including the Blue Ribbon post. There were as many as 500 comments on some posts that I moderated. Many people aired their opinions whether positive or negative.”

While the majority of people were thoughtful, some were not. “We patrolled for foul language, rude jokes, and other disturbing comments and removed them,” Kelly says. Negativity was fine but with such a sensitive issue, inappropriate language was not allowed. “In several cases we needed to block individuals who insisted on continuing to make fun of Penn State in very inappropriate ways,” she says.

What should have happened

Kelly says that the scandal was discussed in several of her MBA classes, including crisis management discussions with MBA marketing professor, Dr. Ralph Oliva in her brand management class. The class went though classic crisis management steps: Gather facts, report facts (even if the fact is that they don’t know anything), put a name to a spokesperson, say that the incident is isolated and does not reflect the football program as a whole, and acknowledge the deep emotions tied to Penn State Football that fans have, and communicate regularly.

These steps were not taken at Penn State Football. Kelly says it took days before the Board of Trustees issued responses and put a face to leadership.

“We should have done a better job providing a way to communicate with the fans,” Kelly says. “That's not something critical about Penn State Football because it goes up to Old Main, who decided what was allowed to be said. I think in our day and age of social media, that silence was not the right response. Keeping information private is not the way to go when people are talking 24x7 on social media and need reassurance.”

A surprising aspect of the situation

Kelly told me how fans of Penn State competitors (such as the Ohio State Buckeyes) also used social media and the Penn State Football Facebook page to show their support and understanding for the victims, the PSU Football players, PSU students, alumni, and fans.

She shared one of the best examples of a positive fan post from what is usually considered the enemy, Ohio State. “In this situation the fan laid aside the on-field rivalry to support a much greater cause (to say the least),” Kelly says. Robert Benson, a Buckeye fan, posted in the Nov. 11 comment thread:

"When people are so quick to make sick references to Penn St. I am disgusted. How can anyone label an entire group of people in a negative way and feel good about it? Taking advantage of people who are down, weakened and heartbroken for your own sick pleasure. Does that remind you of someone?

What I see is a community shell shocked and hurt, trying to find their way through all of this. A horrible situation for them. Surely, among them are kids attending Penn St. who themselves have been victims. Your negative comments about Penn St. must hurt them more than anyone would ever know. They want their university to stand for something better than this.

The whole world is watching Penn St. You will find your way and will come out on the other side to represent something good, and maybe something much bigger and important than before.

Keep your chin up Penn St. When we meet you next week, win or lose, we want you at your best.

A Buckeye fan"

Advice from Kelly about crisis management for other organizations

Interestingly, Kelly says that Penn State Football social media, even today, is not back to “business as usual” like it was before the scandal broke. Currently the football accounts are being updated infrequently by Penn State athletics staff only with innocuous press release type content and the fan engagement is minimal as a result.

“At Penn State, there was no crisis management plan in place whatsoever," Kelly says. "I think it’s crucial for organizations to have crisis management plans with a social media component. Set up timetables to issue responses and statements. You need a plan so that people know how to communicate.”

Kelly’s internship ended several months ago. She says that the crisis experience was terrible in many ways and was certainly *not* fun in the time since the scandal broke. But it was a tremendous learning experience. “I just wish things had turned out differently. Even today they are not communicating openly. It remains to be seen if Penn State Football will address the verdict and engage with fans again now.”

Here is the official statement released by Penn State University immediately following the verdict.

What's next for Kelly

Kelly is now looking for a full-time position in the general fields of marketing, PR, and social media. Having spent time speaking with her, I’d highly recommend her for any communications position. If you’re looking for a social media savvy entry-level employee with extensive crisis communications skills, you need to speak to Kelly. Here are Kelly's social coordinates: blog, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn.

Thank you Kelly for sharing your story with us.
And good luck in your career.