Fallston Group

Building Strengthening & Defending reputations

College Athletics…Social Media…Crisis Communications

We are all familiar with major news stories involving student athletics which brought their campuses to crisis. Recent stories include:

  • Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino crashing his motorcycle while riding with his girlfriend;
  • The murder of University of Virginia lacrosse player Courtney Love by her boyfriend and men’s lacrosse player George Hughley;
  • The child abuse charges being filed against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.

An event doesn’t have to be national news to initiate a crisis that could negatively impact the institution’s brand. Hazing, drug/alcohol abuse, campus crime, the improper use of school facilities…all are events that can escalate into a reputation-damaging crisis.

Many colleges and universities are now utilizing social media as a part of their marketing strategy, which brings an additional element into the crisis communications equation. Recently, the College Sports Information Directors of America commissioned a survey of the athletic departments to determine their position on the use of social media, especially during a crisis situation. The survey included 152 four-year institutions, the majority of which (38%) were schools with an enrollment of 1,000-4,999 students. Twenty-five percent of the schools have enrollments of more than 20,000 and 30% have enrollments of 5,000-19,999 students.


More than half of the schools participating in the survey reported having had to initiate their crisis communications plans from one-to-three times within the previous 12 months. During the same period, 43% of the institutions had potential reputation-damaging stories discussed on social media sites and 6% reported having seven or more stories of this nature occur.

Are colleges and universities prepared to respond effectively when faced with an actual crisis event? Apparently not as only slightly more than 50% of the institutions in the survey reported having an active crisis communications plan in place. Of those schools with a crisis communications plan, only half included social media as an active part of the crisis response scenario. In addition, nearly 60% of the schools have no plan to monitor social media outlets as a part of their crisis communications strategy. This is despite the fact that 98% of the schools have an official athletic department page on Facebook and 96% have active Twitter accounts.


It is not a question of whether a crisis will impact a college campus; it is a question of when. In order to effectively respond to a crisis and minimize the negative impact on an institution’s brand, there are steps that can be taken in advance which will lay the groundwork for success.

  • Establish a crisis communications plan:  The plan should include the creation of a team within the institution to lead a crisis response;
  • Include all aspects of electronic communications:  Have a plan to use the school’s existing website, create a “dark” web site which can be activated to respond to a crisis, include all of the institution’s social media accounts in the response plan;
  • Actively monitor social media during the crisis:  Social media is a two-way form of communication. An element of the crisis plan must include being responsive to social media activity and taking advantage of the ability to communicate directly to stakeholders. Social media is, many times, the way students not only find out about, but follow a crisis. Clear, concise directives should be given during a critical time of need;
  • Confirm the facts – In any crisis situation, effective communication must be accurate. Because social media is immediate, confirm all facts before any information is distributed via traditional or social media channels.

There are many more critical elements to an effective crisis communications plan. For more information about crisis and strategic communications, call the Fallston Group at 410.420.2001.  The Fallston Group is a crisis management and communications company. Send email inquiries to info@fallstongroup.com.

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