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The State of Crisis Communications in College Athletics [Survey]

Crises in college athletics are becoming commonplace. Their ability to wreak havoc on a university’s reputation and hamper an institution’s ability to raise funds is widely documented. The speed and reach of social media accelerates the impact of events that were once delegated to a more predictable and professional traditional media corps. In an age where everyone has a Twitter account or blog, and factual reporting is often neglected, digital assassination is a reality that all athletic departments must live with.

Recently, CoSIDA athletic communicators and new media associates participated in a survey on the use of social media in a crisis. This article will explore the data and address the gaping holes in crisis communications practices in college athletics today.

Who Took the Survey?

Survey respondents (152) came from four-year institutions (84 percent), master’s universities (33 percent) and doctoral/research institutions (11 percent). The majority (38 percent) worked at schools with an enrollment of 1,000-4,999 full-time students. Twenty-five percent worked at schools with over 20,000 students, and 30 percent had full-time enrollments of 5,000-19,999. Most respondents were athletic communicators (94 percent) and six percent were website or digital media associates.

Social Media Basics

The majority of athletic departments have an official Facebook page (98 percent), Twitter feed (94 percent), and YouTube or video channel (76 percent). Many had official blogs (20 percent) and 11 percent used Foursquare or other location-based check-in applications. Less than two percent of respondents had no official department social media channels, and those schools had less than 5,000 students.

The first statistic worth closer inspection is the number of social media channels operating in each department other than the designated official channels. Over 90 percent of the respondents reported individual sports with their own social media accounts. Sixty-five percent of the respondents’ coaches have social media accounts and a surprising 36% have student-athletes with social media accounts associated with the athletic department. Other athletic entities that maintain social media accounts included Student-Athlete Advisory Committees-SAAC (17 percent), boosters (20 percent), athletic directors (18.5 percent), and compliance services (20 percent).

Social Media Governance

Less than 40 percent of those surveyed have a social media policy for managing social media accounts that represent the department in the public space. Beyond a policy, only 15 percent of those responding require any kind of registration or training to use social media on behalf of the department. Of those who did require training or registration, there was a wide discrepancy of what was involved, from filling out a form to taking a video course. Even though 92 percent allow comments from the public on their social media pages, only 48 percent had a policy for dealing with negative comments.

Crisis Communications

Just over half of responding departments have a communications policy for crisis/emergency events. Thirty percent of those with a policy said that the campus communications office is responsible for implementing the plan in the event of a crisis. The most common answer for responsibility in crisis was a team approach made up of the athletic director and other department associates. In some departments (20 percent), the athletics communicator was responsible for implementing the plan. Over half of respondents with a crisis plan do not address the use of social media channels in the event of a crisis, and only seven percent of the policies include guidelines for the use of “unofficial” department social media channels in a crisis, such as coaches, teams, student-athletes, boosters, or marketing.

Crisis Plan Elements

The majority of respondents with a crisis plan include elements for media relations (80 percent), text message alerts (61 percent), emergency email notification plan (64 percent), plans for campus electronic signage (29 percent), predetermined messaging or talking points (27 percent), and a prepared dark website (17 percent) to be implemented in the event of an emergency. Even though close to 100% of respondents have official social media channels, almost 60 percent have no plan to monitor those channels in a crisis.

The State of Crisis

Over 50 percent of responding schools have had to enact their crisis plans one to three times in the last year. In the last 12 months, 43 percent of schools had up to three possible reputation-damaging events discussed in social media and six percent had seven or more.

Crisis/Reputation Disconnects

According to Pew Internet Research,  over 66 percent of adults use social media on a regular basis. College athletic departments are responding to the demand for digital information by developing platforms and voices in new media. But social media is not a one-way broadcast channel. If we treat it as such, we will miss the massive power it has to crowdsource sentiment both for and against us. Smart communicators are learning to harness the power of engagement to foster positive reputation and develop an invested core of stakeholders that will advocate for the brand in the event of a crisis. Recently, we saw this power work positively in the event of one of the most recent tragic crises in college athletics.

The data in the survey show us some gaping holes in our use of social media:

-The majority of departments house unofficial social media channels representing their department (coaches, student-athletes, individual sport programs), but do not monitor or manage those channels.

-A large majority of departments (84 percent) do not require any kind of registration or training for social media channels that represent the department.

-While the majority of schools encourage public interaction on their social media sites, a small number of schools have a plan for dealing with negative comments on those channels.

-The majority of crisis plans do not address the use of social media in a crisis.  Even though the majority of news is delivered digitally, most schools have not addressed the use of new media in a crisis. Only 17% of responding schools have a plan for their most visible digital communicator in a crisis: their website.

Best Practice Takeaways

The data suggest that many university athletic departments are inadequately prepared to deploy multiple communications channels, including social media, as needed in a crisis. Departments might consider implementing the following best practices:

1.       Implement a social media monitoring system. A social media monitoring system can help you keep track of what is being said about your institution in the social media universe, alert you to issues you may not be aware of, and help you gauge public understanding and sentiment around an issue. There are many good social media management systems (SMMS) that include monitoring as a component. An adequate monitoring system can be pieced together with little or no cost using several applications. This list of tools from Tripwire Magazine includes some low cost and free tools. Jeremiah Owyang of Web Strategy has put together a more extensive and research-based review of enterprise level tools here. The important concept is to build a monitoring system that tracks mentions of your brand in online media. The system can be as simple or as elaborate as you have time, resources, and people for. But experts agree a monitoring system is primary, and the sooner implemented, the better. This is the new age clipping service.

2.       Develop a social media policy. There is a misunderstanding among many that a social media policy is a prohibitive document. The best social media policies operate as guide rails that empower people to use social media channels responsibly in a way that builds the organization’s brand. In Owyang’s research on social media readiness, every top-rated company in the report had a social media policy. Those companies with social media policies were also the most successful in crisis and reputation events. The policy should include a training or on-going education element as well.

3.       Implement a social media management system. A social media management system (SMMS) should have multiple functions that can facilitate monitoring, publishing, lead and conversion tracking, measurement, and customer relationship management, depending on what your institution’s social media strategy is (see Jason Falls’ report on management systems). The system may or may not include monitoring, but at its most basic level, it should allow for multiple accounts and administrators to post and manage to your social media channels.

4.       Establish registration or affiliation of department social media accounts. Athletic administrators would be well-advised to develop a training program or best practice guidelines for anyone representing the department in the social media space. Also, establishing a database of account administrators and passwords held by a community manager allows you to remove old accounts or delete or post to any department-related account in an emergency. Many athletic departments have a portal or gateway page that lists all the social media accounts representing athletics. Start with those channels. Make sure you have guidelines for “unofficial” social media channels representing the department, and you have a plan for how those accounts should be used in the event of a crisis.

5.       Establish a community manager for department social media. Many respondents did not have one single supervisor or team monitoring and guiding all department social media. This does not imply that one person should handle all the social media, but that there should be a centralized resource that acts as a hub to the department “spokes” so there is continuity in branding and messaging, especially in the event of a crisis.

Is there anything in the findings that catches your eye? I hope you’ll leave your takeaways in the comments.

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  • http://ronbronson.com Ron

    Thanks for posting this. It’s a topic that has been on my mind and I’m glad someone posted some data to go with it.

  • http://www.cksyme.org Chris Syme

    Glad you stopped by Ron. The survey is an important piece for college sports communicators and higher ed in general.