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Crisis Communication in College Athletics

Posted At: May 3, 2012 2:30 PM
by Katie Bishop

Photo by Jeremy Kahn

In the last two years, college athletics has seen at least two major crises: Cam Newton and Auburn University’s recruiting scandal, and former Pennsylvania State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and his sex abuse allegations.

Obviously, crisis management can no longer be solely for big corporations and businesses. Colleges need a crisis management plan and team to enact when problem situations occur.

The team

The first action that should be taken is to assemble a team. This team should be comprised of individuals who are essential to the management of the crisis and the parties who were directly involved with the crisis.

The crisis management team would most likely consist of the president and vice president of the university, the CEO of public relations, head of the division that is involved with the crisis, and any other individuals who were involved or have insight about the crisis.

First, the team would decide who the lead spokesperson would be and what message they want to relay; the team should also consider designating a back-up spokesperson. A representative from The University of Alabama’s athletic department said this spokesperson will most likely be the sports information director (SID), but only after speaking with the head coach and all athletic directors to confirm that choice.

Natalie Brown, research assistant at The University of Alabama specializing in sports, said, “Any crisis that generally affects a collegiate team affects the entire university as well. So, it is perhaps more difficult to have that one central spokesperson that we generally want in crisis management.”

The crisis management team must agree on appropriate positioning regarding the crisis. The team should think, “Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it fast.” The team’s main goal should be to re-establish credibility and trust with its key publics.

One of the main issues Auburn dealt with in its crisis management, regarding Cam Newton, was the fact the response was not timely. Auburn took too much time to react in the PR world, and this created lapse in enacting its crisis communication plan.

The UA athletic department representative said it is crucial to have a “one voice” policy: only allowing one message to be sent out via one person. The team should decide the most effective way to disseminate the key message. They should take into account the target publics when deciding the most appropriate media to send out this message, consulting technical experts and advisors regarding those media choices.

A survey conducted by CoSIDA, an athletic communication and new media company that specifically works with college athletics, found that most colleges that already had crisis plans included elements for media relations, text message alerts, predetermined message and talking points, plans for campus electronic signage and a prepared dark website to be implemented in the event of emergency.

The majority of these elements depend on technology, specifically social media. If used correctly, social media could be the most effective and timely strategy in controlling a crisis situation in college athletics.

Social media: The most crucial element

The same CoSIDA survey found that in the last 12 months, 43 percent of schools had up to three reputation-damaging events discussed in social media; and six percent had seven or more. Colleges have taken note of the importance social media plays in such crises, but there are significant gaps in the usage of these social media sites.

“Social media is completely changing our old thoughts about crisis response in sports. Fans, now, are a part of the process,” said Brown.

During the Penn State sex abuse scandal, news about the allegations were sent out so quickly via Twitter that there were riots in the streets before the first press conference was even over. Fans play a huge role in communication on social media. Social media gives fans the opportunity to say what they want online and colleges must be very careful about how they respond.

The CoSIDA survey also found that 84 percent of the various departments in schools use social media sites, but have not received proper training. The survey noted that the majority of the schools’ crisis plans do not address social media, even though the majority of news is delivered digitally. The UA athletic department representative said that a trained representative should be monitoring social media sites constantly, because such sites will be the venue for many public questions and rumors.

Brown warns that universities should not lose sight of the need to be “consistent” in their responses to social media conversations. “You cannot have contrasting messages being placed online. In social media, once something is posted, it’s out there,” said Brown.

When a crisis occurs, social media is essential to the management and control of the situation. The CoSIDA study notes some important tips and practices to remember when implementing these social media sites(

• “Implement a social media monitoring system.”
• “Develop a social media policy” or code of ethics.
• “Implement a social media management system.”
• “Establish registration or affiliation of department social media.”
• “Establish a community manager for department social media.”

It is essential that a crisis management plan is already in place prior to a crisis occurring. The best crisis planning and managing happen when the crises are anticipated. When you anticipate the problems, you have a better chance of controlling the crises quickly and effectively.

Last updated on 3/07/12 at 12:25 PM


  1. Post comment

    I agree with the article’s heavy focus on the importance of social media during a crisis. With the incredible popularity of social media channels, the public has come to expect companies, celebrities and even universities to engage them on a very personal level. During a crisis, this expectation becomes paramount. Producers of information, though, gain a significant advantage by establishing credibility and cohesiveness in their messages. Engaging consumers and stakeholders early and often is a key point to remember.

  2. Post comment

    I find this article to have many helpful points in terms of crisis management. Being a student at The University of Alabama, I have seen proper crisis communication play a vital role in crisis management during many situtaions on campus,including the April 2011 tornado. I believe “Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it fast” is a helpful approach to take when communicating in difficult times. It is important to inform the public of the situtaion at hand in the most concise way as possible. Great article!

  3. Post comment

    I found this article appealing and it had some great points. Having a crisis management plan was something I only really thought necessary for corporations and businesses. This article taught me that I was wrong and a crisis management plan is really needed for any organization. I think using social media is definitely a great way to get the information out quickly. I am always on social media sites and honestly that is how I found out about the Jerry Sandusky case. I think this article is a great thing to keep in mind as I move into the PR world.


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