Using Social Media in Crisis: A Study From Penn State

Today, 92 percent of Americans use multiple platforms to get their news on a given day, and only seven percent get their news from a single media platform (Pew Internet Research). The same study showed that almost 60 percent of people get their news both online and offline.There are over 800 million active users on Facebook, and over 200 million on Twitter. The Twitter number is just about the same as the daily circulation of the Wall Street Journal, the largest daily in America.  In light of the reach and 24/7 access of social media, what is its role in a crisis?

On Saturday, November 5, charges of child sexual abuse were filed against a former Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky. Two university officials were also charged with covering up the alleged crimes.  That same day, the three main university Facebook pages (university main page, athletic department page, and university football page) were silent except for one post by the university reminding people to turn back their clocks that night. The athletic department Twitter feed was also silent, despite a double-header homestand of men’s and women’s basketball.

On that same day, then-university president Graham Spanier issued a statement through the school’s news service expressing his support for the two university officials charged, and  his support for the investigation of Sandusky. The alleged victims were not mentioned in his statement. The floodgate of public outcry was opened, and the most likely channels of expression would become social media.

A Look at the Days Leading Up to Nov. 5

An analysis of the school’s main social media feeds between October 31 and Nov. 6 revealed the following:

  • The athletic department Twitter feed averages just over 12 tweets per day, despite the fact that it was a football bye week.  The Twitter feed functions mainly as a news broadcaster and has over 16,000 followers.
  • The main athletic department Facebook page (with just over 193,000 fans) averages just over four posts per day with an average comment number of just under ten comments on each. The range of post comments during this period was zero to 44.
  • The football Facebook page has 322,318 fans and averages just over 5 posts per day between Oct. 30 and Nov. 4. The average comment number is 50 with a range of three to 153.
  • The university’s main Facebook page  averages six posts per day mainly revolving around news stories. An occasional post about football draws the highest number of comments, but the average comment number is about seven.
  • Clearly, the football fans are the most interactive and invested members of the Penn State social media community.

A Look at the First Ten Days of the Crisis

  • Despite the unusually high number of comments on posts on the main athletic Facebook page, an informal sentiment analysis shows positive and negative posts are evenly split. On the football Facebook page, comments initially ran two-to-one in positive support of the football program. This is a testament of their fans’ loyalty. Normally, this number would be skewed heavily negative. Penn State Athletics had built a solid base of loyalty to help them sustain the crisis. The general university sentiment was running at an expected negative skew.
  • Negative comments on the main athletic Facebook page started on the first post on Nov. 6—a post about the women’s field hockey team. Two hours after the post was made (4:27 p.m.), the negative posts concerning the football crisis started and basically hijacked the thread.
  • Between Nov. 6-10, the athletic department Facebook posts dropped from an average of ten posts per day to two per day. The number of comments per post rose to almost 400 per post.
  • In that same period, the football Facebook page averaged two posts per day with an average comment number of just under 850 per post, a total of 13 posts in seven days.
  • From Nov. 13-16, comments on the football page fell to an average 336.
  • At least one group, the Jacob’s Law Facebook group, claimed that their posts were being blocked by the Penn State athletic department.
  • Both the university main Facebook page and the athletic department main page have posting policies explaining what is acceptable (info section). The football page does not.

The Best Practices

Jane Jordan-Meier, in her recent book The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, defines the stages all crises pass through. In the first stage, fact-finding, the emphasis is on gathering the facts quickly enough to determine if the crisis is one of major impact. Both journalists and the public have a high need for information at this stage. She says the key for organizations in this stage, is to act fast, demonstrate concern and empathy, and only say what you know is correct. This is the stage where the majority of organizations fail by not leading the message. This is the stage where lack of planning really shows up.

Malcolm Moran is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society in addition to the director of the John  Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. PSU’s journalism curriculum includes training in the real-time use of media.  He sees social media in a crisis as a plus for journalists, extending their scope of an incident significantly and gives the public a birds-eye view on a number of venues.

“If there are multiple locations (in an event like this) where news is breaking, and you can only be in one place, you can get at least a little bit of a handle on minute-by-minute developments through (Twitter),” Moran said.

But there is a danger, Moran said, in the quality of that information depending on who you are following. “If a consumer makes informed, smart choices, then based upon some discernment, a consumer could be in an excellent position to get up to the minute information.”

Jordan-Meier adds that it is critical for organizations in crisis to establish themselves as the source of credible news in the fact-finding stage, and not rely on outside media to carry their message.

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber-Shandwick, says social media  should be viewed as an asset more than a risk in crisis.

“ It gets the message out quickly, points people in the right direction for more information or aid, lessens the impact of ardent criticism and reaches many stakeholders, at once, including the traditional media,” Gaines-Ross said.

She also warns: “The downside is that social media usage allows detractors to jump in with negative commentary, spread misinformation and turn a local incident into a global one, perhaps leading to future litigation. On balance, however, the rewards outweigh the risks. “

The Takeaways

In looking at the pattern of how social media was used at Penn State in the first ten days of the crisis, there are some good lessons for organizations.

1.       No matter what, strive to keep your social media channels open and on point during a crisis. In may not seem very courageous, but I’ve seen a lot of organizations shut down their social media in a crisis out of fear. Penn State left comments open on their Facebook pages and monitored the pages to make sure the comments weren’t violating posting policies. To their credit, this was a wise decision.

2.       Don’t do business as usual, because crisis isn’t usual. Penn State made a decision (whether by default or purpose) to modify their posting habits in the first days to include mainly news and information about the crisis. Even though this meant suspending normal news and posting less, the higher interaction on the posts showed that people were interested in engaging with the university community and each other. The channels gave people a place to mourn, vent, or encourage one another.

3.       Remember that every crisis period will have times of high and low activity depending on the news events that follow the initial event. In the case of Penn State, there were several events after Nov. 5 that increased interaction temporarily on the football Facebook page. Each of those emotionally charged events resulted in a sharp spike on social media channels: the announcement of a student blue-out at the next home football game in honor of the abuse victims (over 1600 comments on Nov. 8 post), the announcement by Joe Paterno of his retirement (2432 comments on Nov. 9 post), and the announcement of a candlelight vigil for victims of the tragedy (1149 comments on the Nov. 11 post). Organizations should expect these spikes, not panic, and stay on message. The university’s willingness to inform people on all pieces of the crisis via social media will work in their favor on the long road to reputation recovery.

4.  If information is transparent, honest, and empathetic, sentiment will eventually sway in favor of the organization. I saw this happen at Montana State in an athletic crisis in 2007, and it is happening at Penn State. Open, honest transmission of information that helps people heal and stay informed will shorten the reputation recovery period.



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