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A Lesson In Crisis Management Through Social Media

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It would have been easier to just take the accounts out of the students’ hands, to stay silent or even to talk about the sun making a rare seasonal appearance on campus. But during the past month, a small, but visible team at Syracuse University has eschewed the easy way to instead carefully navigate some the darkest days in the school’s history. As a result, a group of aspiring social media students has been empowered with real world crisis management experience.

Now I have to admit, as a Syracuse graduate, I’m not the most partial observer in this case. But I’m confident even most outsiders would agree that Syracuse’s social media team couldn’t have handled this situation much better. Kate Brodock and Dan Klamm lead that team, and they’ve each recently written fascinating blog posts about their strategies during this crisis, which I’ll post links to later.

Ever since ESPN initially aired child molestation allegations against former assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine Nov. 17, I’ve paid close attention to Syracuse’s official Twitter and Facebook accounts. As a graduate who’s now deeply involved with social media, I was curious to see how they’d use the channels.

The recent events at Penn State revealed a school that wasn’t ready to handle such a crisis. Would Syracuse get out front and acknowledge what’s going on? Would they be more transparent? Would they inform their community of new details?

The first hint at an answer came in the form of this tweet, just a few hours after ESPN’s report:

 

 

After that, the account went silent for a couple hours, until signing off with these two tweets:

 

 

Acknowledgement and transparency — it seems so simple, but it’s not that easy. Words have to be carefully formulated. There could be important decision-makers who would prefer to wait. But in tandem with the Office of Public Affairs, Syracuse’s social media team immediately provided a voice.

“Everyone in the community is talking about it, so naturally we have to address it,” Klamm explained in a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon.

As the crisis continued, not only did the accounts acknowledge what was going on, but they also updated information and provided a forum for the community to express itself in a highly-emotional time:

 

 

 

 

But deciding to acknowledge, be transparent and inform was just the start of Syracuse’s social media response. While the official Twitter and Facebook accounts are led by social media professionals Klamm and Brodock, they’re largely run by a group of 12 students. Trusting them to be a public voice of the University during this situation was risky. Even though Klamm and Brodock would never go completely hands-off, a big mistake by a student could have turned a huge crisis into a colossal public relations nightmare.

“Let’s be honest, a lot of programs or schools would say ‘We’re not going to risk it,’ Klamm said. “But we saw this as a learning experience for our students, something hands-on that they can use in future job interviews.”

As more companies expand their online presence, and as more college students make a social media job their goal, experiences like this are invaluable. But perhaps it’s a case that can also teach a couple lessons to businesses. If they encourage and enable passionate employees to get behind social media efforts, while also providing proper training, the result can be a team fully capable of representing a brand.

Also, maybe those in charge could loosen the reigns a bit. When the waters get a bit rough, the first instinct of many senior managers is to take complete control. They shove the junior team aside and bring in the big guns. But with some good coaching and supervision, those with lesser experience could be given a tremendous opportunity to learn.

By empowering their students, many of which are pursuing careers in PR, journalism, or management, to work through this crisis, Syracuse has taken a big risk for a big reward. They’ve taught and learned lessons. They’ve prepared for the future. And isn’t that the point of higher education — to fully educate your students?



Recommended Reading

Details on how Klamm and Brodock have helped guide their team through this crisis:

“Managing a Student Social Media Team Through Crisis” — Klamm

“Bernie Fine, Communications and PR Crisis Management” — Burdock

 

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