Ask the Crisis Experts: Meet Karen Freberg

Next up in our crisis experts series is the academic standout in the group. Karen Freberg (that’s Doctor Freberg to you and me), is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville (Go Cardinals!) in Strategic Communications and is also an adjunct faculty member for West Virginia University in the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) Graduate Online program. Her research has been published in several book chapters and in academic journals such as Public Relations Review, Media Psychology Review, and Health Communication.  The most interesting fact about Karen: she was also a four-time All-American in the shot put, USC School record holder , two-time SEC champion, and 2004 Olympic Trials Finalist.

Tell us a little about what you do?

I am currently an assistant professor in Strategic Communication at the University of Louisville.  I teach the Introduction to Strategic Communications, Strategic Communication Writing, and Social Media and Mobile technologies courses in our department. I am also a researcher who specializes in social media, crisis communications, public relations, and mobile technologies. When I am not teaching or conducting research, I am also actively involved in consulting in social media and crisis communications for businesses and government agencies. I also contribute to my personal blog where I write about PR, social media, and crisis communications (

What is the most challenging part of your job?

There are several challenges that come along with being active and engaged in teaching and research, but a lot can be solved with having a good cup of coffee. Seriously, I would say making sure to have effective time management would be one of the most challenging aspects in my job.  However, as a former track and field athlete at Florida and USC, I have taken the same work ethic and approach from training to the classroom and research, which has been very beneficial and effective in my productivity.

What are your personal top three social media tools and how do you use them?

The three social media tools I use heavily are Zite, Bottlenose, and Ptch.  I use Zite on the go especially when I am looking for relevant articles related to my interests and want to share them to my followers and friends on Twitter.  Bottlenose is the social media monitoring dashboard I have been using for the last several months for research and teaching.  I show my students all of the various social media monitoring dashboards that are out there, but I like the fact Bottlenose provides a comprehensive view of what are some of the emerging topics and trends out there via social media.  Plus, they have a sonar view that is pretty cool.  The last social media application I use is Ptch, the video and photo storytelling app developed by professionals from DreamWorks.  The University of Louisville and the Athletic Department have a formal partnership with the company and it has been a great tool to showcase edited stories (less than 60 seconds) that can be shared across the social media platforms.  This is a great tool to use to share experiences from conferences, events, interviews, and even travel adventures.

 Looking back at 2012, what were some of the most alarming trend you saw in how brands used social media in a crisis?

I would definitely say there were some alarming trends we saw with social media and crisis this past year.  We started the year off with a bang with the Costa Concordia crisis in Italy and have finished the year with crisis situations in the NHL and the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.  We had crisis situations across the various industries from sports to food industries to government and even entertainment.  Crises can occur at any time and target any brand or individual at a given time.

I would say the alarming thing I have seen is the lack of education or understanding on how to properly communicate and manage your reputation online with social media.  There are still some brands that are assuming social media is the same as traditional media – and it is not.  A reputation is the most priceless possession a brand and individual has, and it can be damaged with one single action. I would also say the growing trend into privacy issues and monitoring should also be noted as an increasing trend crisis communicators need to be aware of.

If you could give one piece of advice to brands on how to use social media well in a crisis, what would that be?

I would say the most important thing I would advise brands to do is to educate all members of their team about the potential scenarios (good or bad) that could evolve and emerge on each social media platform while being aware of the emerging trends and platforms.  Learning does not stop in the classroom or after college – we have to be life learners and make sure we take the time to educate ourselves and our team about what are the latest trends, tools, and issues that impact how we communicate before, during, and after a crisis.

Each social media platform has been defined by a crisis – we have seen this with YouTube (ex. Domino’s crisis in 2009), Twitter (US Airways Crash in the Hudson River), and now Instagram (ex. Hurricane Sandy).  I would advice crisis communicators to not look at the possibilities and opportunities that can come up with these platforms, but also think about the challenges and risks associated with them.

Thanks to Karen for taking the time to share her insights with us.  One thought I’d like to amplify: think about the challenges and risks associated with each social media platform. Start with a risk analysis of each platform and then try constructing a table top exercise that incorporates all the channels. Good stuff.

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