Penn State University: Poor Crisis Management And Social Media Skills

One part of the Jerry Sandusky story that did not get much attention is the social media and crisis communications aspect. How would you handle social media within an organization faced with a major crisis like this?
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The 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 and crisis communications 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?

I spoke with Kelly Burns, a recent Penn State MBA graduate. While a student, Burns 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," Burns 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.

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 Burns was told to remove photos of Sandusky from the Facebook page. The social media team was told to stop posting onto Facebook on November 5, 2011.

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 @PennStateFball Twitter lit up but that was difficult because initially we were not allowed to post," Burns 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.

What should have happened

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.

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," Burns 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."

Interestingly, Burns 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," Burns 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."

Crisis communications plans need to be open ended so they are appropriate for any situation that might arise. Too many crisis plans only look at a few scenarios and people freeze up when the actual crisis is something they hadn't thought of.

Burns' 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."

Correction: in a previous version of this post it was stated that the social media team was told to stop posting onto Facebook on October 16, 2011. The date was in fact November 5, 2011.

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

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