PSU's Facebook page has seen consistent updates in recent days.

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.”


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