On Nov. 1, Penn State hosted its second “Social Media Summit” for dozens of employees who oversee university-related Web sites, blogs and social media accounts. It was an event much like those happening at colleges across the country, as schools attempt to control their image and brand online.
In addition to learning the basics, a panel of journalists (myself included) answered questions about how we use social media, and the keynote speaker was a Pentagon official who does social media for the Army.
Four days later, former coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually molesting young boys. Two university administrators were charged with lying to a grand jury and not properly reporting suspected child abuse. Penn State’s two most public leaders — football coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier — were implicated but not charged. All of the men maintain their innocence.
For days, the unfolding scandal dominated news coverage and workplace conversations. It endlessly trended on Twitter and was heavily searched on Google. The Penn State’s official Facebook page lit up with hundreds of comments from all sorts of people.
For university public relations staffers, crisis management has grown larger than dealing with a flood of calls and visits from traditional reporters. Now, there are also millions of random people online asking questions, making accusations and forming opinions.
Behind the scenes, top-level Penn State officials closely monitored the publicity and tried to control their messaging, according to memos obtained by the Associated Press through a public records request filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as Penn State is largely exempt from state open records laws.
On Nov. 14 — a few days after Spanier was ousted, Paterno was fired, and students rioted near campus — newly appointed President Rodney Erickson sent a memo to Penn State trustees. “Review of Top 20 search terms on Google today shows no Penn State terms on that list for the first time in nine days,” he wrote, adding that “blogs, tweets, news stories, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, etc.” had declined 50 percent from the previous day and 90 percent over the prior four days.
In a memo dated the following day — which was soon after Sandusky was interviewed by Bob Costas on NBC — Erickson told the board that marketing staffers were developing a video and “more symbolic game day experiences” for the upcoming football game against Ohio State. Erickson also wrote that special attention was being given to reaching to prospective students, according to the AP.
In another memo, the AP reported, Erickson informed trustees that Penn State’s vice president for university relations had told deans and chancellors to emphasize a message of “remorse, humility and resolve.”
Such calculated messaging often rubs people the wrong way, especially so soon after a tragedy. But that’s how public relations offices at major universities — and many small colleges, too — now operate. That’s why there are all of these social media training sessions.
A week after a student gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, university public relations officials assembled a panel of students, faculty and a counselor to speak to the media. In 2008, the Post obtained an internal memo about the event, which mentioned the panel members had been coached beforehand.
"If we had scripted this entire event, we could not have done a better job than these folks did, spontaneously,” the memo read. “One of the professors, who did not participate, made a comment that if we got our participants from central casting, we would not have had better players.”
In December, I interviewed several marketing professors about how universities address scandal and tragedy. In these conversations, the word “brand” was used over and over again. And Virginia Tech was frequently cited as an example of what universities should do: memorialize the victims, support those affected and take action to prevent similar problems in the future.
“Every university should have a plan in hand for when these crisis happen,” said Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter. With sprawling campuses filled with thousands of young people, staffers and visitors, “you have to think of the university as a powder keg that could blow at any moment.”