Facebook has become ground zero for crisis management in higher education, as demonstrated by Penn State University’s consistent communication with its 243,000 followers as the campus descended into riots after the Nov. 9 firing of head football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier.
The university’s Board of Trustees dismissed Spanier and Paterno days after PSU drew national attention when former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sex crimes against minors.
Students took to the University Park, Pa., streets and protested the firing of Paterno. The university updated its Facebook page after midnight with alerts telling students to “vacate” the rioting areas immediately.
The school’s Facebook posts didn’t go unnoticed: The warnings drew more than 1,800 comments.
Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C., who has experience in crisis communication, said colleges and universities should keep stakeholders updated, especially when controversies unfold at breakneck speed.
“Recognize that people are already talking about nothing else,” Carr said. “Students, faculty members, parents, and alumni should not have to get the news from the news. They should get it from the [university].”
Even when campus officials’ opinions are split on how to handle a public relations nightmare, Carr said it’s critical for colleges to err on the side of openness.
“Make sure someone at the decision-making table understands the difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion,” she said. “If only lawyers have the final or most influential say in what gets disclosed, shared, or communicated, I can almost guarantee that you will lose in the court of public opinion.”
Education officials who have tracked colleges’ use of social media to handle controversies said the real-time communication channels can help put a positive spin on an overtly negative spate of publicity.
PSU has done just that, encouraging football fans to join the school’s “Blue Out” at the Nov. 12 game against the University of Nebraska. PSU’s Facebook page instructs fans to wear blue shirts and jerseys to support victims of child abuse.
The university will sell “Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska” T-shirts before opening kickoff. More than 11,000 Facebook users have signed on to the “Blue Out” page.
PSU’s Facebook page also promoted a Nov. 11 candlelight vigil scheduled for victims of child abuse. Students unable to attend the vigil were encouraged by PSU to snap a photo of themselves holding a lit candle and post the picture on Facebook.
“In light of everything that has happened, the people that need our support the most are being overshadowed,” the PSU Facebook page said. “These are the victims — the ones who were abused — the ones who were hurt the most.”
“The keys to using social media in a crisis are listening, informing, and channeling energy in productive ways,” said Julie Germany, cofounder of the Association for Social Media and Higher Education, and former director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
The university has posted a series of reminders asking its Facebook fans to “remember profanity, spam … and attacks on other posters will need to be deleted.”The PSU page, especially in the hours after Paterno was fired, was littered with comments laced with profanities and personal attacks on university officials and people mentioned in the 23-page grand jury report that outlined Sandusky’s many crimes against boys.
“They probably need to realize that students and alums are going to use their Facebook page to vent anyway, whether they want them to or not,” Germany said. “So they should be prepared with extra staff to respond.”
PSU should not invite students, alums, and others to comment on the school’s Facebook page only to censor the page when opinions become heated and distasteful, said Adam Kissel, vice president for programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that tracks social media policies in higher education.
“A university should not pretend that it is offering its Facebook wall as a free forum for comments and then selectively delete the ones it would rather not let people see,” he said. “I think most people understand that whoever controls the Facebook wall also has a right to control its content.”
Carr said that however the leadership controversy unfolds at PSU, the university should keep its social media sites as open and honest as possible.
“Given the heinous nature of these crimes and the secrecy that has shrouded and protected the perpetrator rather than the victims, nothing short of total transparency and genuine efforts at reforming the policies and practices that allowed this to happen/be covered up will begin to rebuild trust,” she said.
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