The verdict is out. On June 22, 2012, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 charges of sexual abuse to children. He faces a sentence of potentially hundreds of years in prison. But what about Penn State? How – or will – they ever be able to repair their once good name and begin to pick themselves off the ground?
This is a big question. One that will depend on Penn State’s actions from here on out.
Looking back, Penn State made so many irresponsible and unwise decisions since the unfolding of the scandal – as many companies and organizations do in a crisis – that, had they responded differently, could have potentially separated the University from the scandal entirely. The Penn State Crisis could have been titled the “Paterno Scandal” or “The Curley and Schultz coverup”, rather than the “Penn State Crisis” or the “Penn State Scandal”.
Looking at it from a social media standpoint (being a social media crisis manager and all!), there are so many actions and strategies Penn State could have – and should have – put into place that would have helped to cushion their fall.
Looking back on Penn State’s Social Media Crisis Fails
First and foremost, Penn State chose to never once address the entire – or even a portion of – the crisis via social media. With social media endlessly buzzing about it for months on end, and with the public curious to know the University’s position, this decision to do nothing and to stay silent was the worst thing that Penn State could have chosen to do.
Although they allowed comments and remarks to be posted as comments to their own posts (and boy were comments posted!), they did not allow for comments to be directly posted to their timeline. At this point, thousands of comments have been posted to their channels, both supporting and attacking the University. And although their audience was screaming their want for open and two-way communication, Penn State stayed silent.
How else can you further implicate yourself or your brand in a scandal? It’s as though their silence begged for their implication, and as a result, the University has many long hours, days, weeks and potentially years of damage control ahead of them.
With their core audience screaming their want for open communication, the University would have been wise to open up that portal. To develop a core and consistent message, as well as a strategy and guidelines for responding, would have helped them position their brand as caring, responsive, open and, most importantly, separate from the scandal. The actions of a few individuals should not put the entire organization at risk, though they allowed it to have these kinds of repercussions. It was the public who named the scandal the “Penn State Crisis”, and this was a product of poor crisis communications.
What Penn State should have done differently on social media in response to the crisis
Address the situation
Penn State should have immediately addressed the situation the second it went public. Real-time communication is both key and appreciated in a crisis – especially one of this magnitude. They should have been open and honest about the charges and developed a consistent message that separated the University and the Football program as a whole, from the scandal and individuals being accused.
Put a social media crisis team in place
With all the comments and questions flooding their social media channels, Penn State would have been wise to develop a team of social media monitors and communicators. This team would have been responsible for actively monitoring the online discussions and communicating and responding to comments and questions, 24/7.
Develop a clear and consistent message
They had no message other than silence – and silence is a very loud message. Penn State should have immediately developed a clear, honest and consistent message, as well as a strategy for communicating it efficiently across their many social platforms.
Choose a spokesperson
A spokesperson should have been titled for their crisis communications, period. And this spokesperson’s message should have been communicated and uploaded across their active social media networks on a regular basis.
Empower social media personnel
Penn State instructed their staff to stay silent on social media. They were not permitted to post anything in direct relation with the scandal. Instead, their staff – who had proven to do so well on social media for the University in the past – should have been empowered and instructed on how, when and where to respond and post about the scandal.
They had all the tools and advantages at their disposal
Penn State had loyal fans and active communities. They had people interacting with them who wanted to believe in them. They were surrounded with brand advocates who would have helped and come to their defense in a heart beat. These are all powerful tools that Penn State could have and should have used to their advantage. But they didn’t and look at where they are today. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to repair the damage caused by their inaction.
What’s your opinion?
Having watched the scandal unfold, and perhaps having been a Penn State supporter, what do you think of the way the University handled their crisis communications, and do you think they will be able to redeem themselves? Share your comments with me below!
* Click here to read Penn State’s official statement, released after the verdict on June 22nd 2012.
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.