Bernie Fine, Communications, and PR Crisis Management

by Kate Brodock on 13 December 2011

Posted in: PR

In case you hadn’t heard, we’ve been dealing with a… well…little PR issue at Syracuse University. Yes, our Assistant Basketball coach was accused of child molestation - what every single campus across the country - including ours - was breathing a sigh of relief that we didn’t have to deal with in the wake of Penn State.

But as surprised and emotional as we all were when the story hit here at Syracuse - we had little to no time to prepare for that one - we had to deal with the situation quickly, while putting our emotions aside.

I want to briefly go over how we dealt with it in terms of our social media platforms, and how those actions were connected to our larger communications arms during the process.

Also, Dan Klamm, our Assistant Director, worked very closely with our student social media team during the situation, and has a great write-up specifically on how the team itself behaved. You should definitely read it.

Social Media Team

Several things happened at the student social media team level: They had clear instructions for “moving forward” and they were given information and support as soon as possible.

  1. Instructions: This was (part of) the protocol when we went into “crisis mode.”
    • Realize that this is the overwhelming focus and emotion of our community. And don’t ignore that. Don’t try to cover it up by talking about unrelated positive news. If 99% of your community is upset, angry, or sad, we need to address that directly and not brush it aside.
    • Go light on posts, or stop if you have to. There’s nothing saying that we have to tweet x number of times a shift. The situation was still very much in investigation mode (and still is) after both big spikes - when the story broke, and when the Laurie Fine tape was released - and we still needed to be very sensitive with what we said.
    • Be especially careful in posting.  We strive for accuracy at all times, but I urged our team members to be especially focused and attentive while this was unfolding. Utilize our internal channels to get content, double check wording of posts, always ask if you have a question, make sure you’re monitoring your email, as well as very regularly checking mentions, DMs, comment sections, etc…. things like that.
    • Be neutral. As I mentioned, this was a very emotional time for everyone in our community, including our student team.  This was their school, under attack and at risk, and they were at the front line.  Despite all of this, they needed to make sure they were voicing neutrality on behalf of SU.  We directed them towards their personal accounts to discuss their views on an open forum - within the “best-practices” of our ongoing discussions on personal branding and recognizing that they’re a public face on campus.
  2. Information and support: Social media is by it’s nature both a front line and a tail-end.  Front line in the sense that it’s where a large part of a brand’s community responds (and quickly), and tail-end in the sense that it’s one of the communications channels that acts as the “information disseminator” after a team decides how to move on an issues, and crafts messaging around that.  This sometimes means that content is scarce until we know we can put a coordinated message out.  Recognizing that our social networks needed responses quickly, our core communications team was able to provide clear instructions and make “usable content” available as quickly as possible to our students.
  3. Listening and Flexibility: The set of instructions that the students got were put in place for 24 hours.  During that time, we monitored and listened to our community, and gauged where their sentiments were going.  This allowed us to recognize when things were “getting back to normal” so to speak. Over the course of the subsequent days, we started to taper off crisis mode.  We started by adding a small handful of other announcements that we deemed “very important” and went from there. We continued to converse with our community and offer them an open platform for discussion on the situation, but we also “moved on” with them. By being attentive to our audience, we were able to act in support of their emotions.


A few things happened well in our overall communications channels that made our process at the social media level a lot easier:

  1. Speed: With little notice from ESPN that a bomb was going to drop (thanks!), our Public Affairs team was pulled together very quickly, given a debrief, and started developing a statement as soon as they could. Within the constraints they were under, they knew they needed to be as proactive as possible.  This happened again a week later when Fine was fired.  This enabled our social media team to have available official first-party content.
  2. Wordsmithing: We have a good writing team at SU. Each statement was made with very specific wording to get very specific messages across (this shouldn’t surprise anyone).  Our social media team then pulled several of the key pieces and used them to highlight each statement.  Our community received these quotes and sound-bytes and the statements very positively.
  3. Team dedication: When this story broke, our campus was headed into Thanksgiving break, and many of us (including myself) were simultaneously planning for travel and vacation.  Despite that, we all dedicated ourselves as a team, as a University, to make sure all wheels were turning.  All key players and countless non-key players made themselves available for the entire break (and we needed it, as the second wave hit us on the Sunday after Thanksgiving).  Let’s be honest, if given the choice, did any of us want to work through a holiday (from, say, the beach in Nicaragua?)? Not necessarily, but none of us was upset about it when we did. We all rallied, and realized that this wasn’t about our jobs, it was about the institution we worked for, one we loved, and one we wanted to preserve.  It was highly emotional for everyone - SU students, faculty/staff, alums and the Syracuse community at large. It was unquestionable that we’d step up to the plate with no questions.  Our student team did the same, staying up after shifts ended to monitor and mend, creating reports after every shift and working really closely with Dan and I throughout the process.

I’m extremely pleased with how our entire team handled it, and frankly wouldn’t change a lot if given the opportunity.  Yes, there are places for improvement, which we’re handling internally (as all teams should do in the wake of something like this), and some people…..”politely commented” on my role.  But the processes we had in place worked….though we’re really hoping we don’t have to do it again any time soon….!

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  • Adam Britten

    Interesting stuff here, Kate. As someone who is very vocal about my opinions of the management of the @SyracuseU account, let me chime in here as well. I think that you and your team handled the situation as best as any team can. Nothing would have been worse than for you all to completely ignore the situation, posting about stuff that the school normally posts about. I was happy to see your team constantly re-sharing the statement from Chancellor Cantor, while also saying that you would keep posting news as it becomes available, leading your followers to trust that you will be the first source of information (as it should be.)

    For two people who just recently stepped into your roles, I commend you and Dan (Dan’s post about the situation was also very insightful) on the fact that you are sharing what was going on “behind the curtain” as this whole situation unfolded. As a newbie Community Manager myself who wants to further my career in the field of social media, I appreciate that you both have turned this into a learning opportunity for not only yourselves but for everone who is watcing (and I’m sure a LOT of people were watching!)

    Good luck as the situation carries on.

  • Kate Brodock

    Adam, thank you very much for your words. I’m glad you found the “behind the scenes” information helpful.  I always appreciate when others share their experiences, as we can all learn from each other.

    Thank you also for continuing to be a supporter :-)  And a very good luck with your Community Manager experiences!


  • Chase Wright

    As a Syracuse alum interested in preserving the fine (probably not the best word) legacy of this institution, I thank you all. 

  • Kate Brodock

    Chase, you’re very welcome!