The popularity of social networking websites like Facebook presents a broad array of communications opportunities and challenges for organizations looking to manage their digital reputation. Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia came face-to-face with these challenges when a Facebook group falsely accusing our institution of animal cruelty spread rapidly across the social network, gaining over 25,000 supporters in one month. The controversy marked our first efforts in responding to false information in this new communications landscape, and our experience holds valuable lessons for managing reputation in a medium where concepts of truth and trust are being radically rewritten.
In July 2007, a person named Amy Scott created a group on Facebook titled “Stop Dogs and Puppies from being murdered at Dalhousie University.” Scott claimed to have heard dogs near our animal care center but presented no concrete evidence other than some outdated research studies and a photo of a caged beagle from a third-party animal rights Web site. She had also used Facebook’s privacy settings to prevent anyone from contacting her directly.
Heading off the Facebook Attack
When some Dalhousie students joined the group to challenge her false claims, she stifled the dissent by removing all discussion threads and the message wall. Without competing views, the group’s membership hit critical mass, gaining over 11,000 new members in the next five days. Each of these new members, predominantly high school students, automatically broadcasted its false claims to hundreds of their Facebook friends, fuelling the group’s rapid growth. It quickly became evident that an institutional response was required.
Our objective was to slow or halt the spread of the group through Facebook, either by shutting it down outright or by discrediting its allegations. Lacking identified best practices for the situation, we decided on a balanced approach that took strong action but reaffirmed the university’s commitment to open and honest debate. We reported the group to Facebook, asking that it be removed on the grounds that it violated the social network’s defamation policy. We were conflicted about this, but felt justified because Scott’s removal of debate was antithetical to the principles of free discourse. Two days later – and with no official response from Facebook – the group disappeared from the Web site. We then launched our supporting tactic, a story for our “Dalnews” website that explained our actions and our policies for animal research to the Dalhousie community.
Becoming International News
Although we did not push the story to media, journalists picked up on our online article and our Facebook problem became an international news story. We fielded 37 media calls over five days, including all local outlets, national publications such as Maclean’s magazine in Canada and Inside Higher Education in the U.S., global wire services and media from as far away as the U.K. and Italy.
Our concerns that this would become an animal research story were muted as reporters focused on how Facebook was being used to impact the reputation of large organizations. With Scott unreachable to most reporters and unwilling to speak to those few who tracked her down, the university found itself in an enviable position – defending researchers against defamation.
Recognizing that only a handful of the group’s members were participating in the discussion, we judged that most people were joining the group to show support for animal rights based on its provocative name. Therefore, we decided on a compromise solution: Our legal team drafted a letter to Facebook asking that the title be changed to remove mention of Dalhousie University. Facebook complied, forcing Scott to change the group to “Stop animal testing in Nova Scotia.”
Posting Updates on the Web
Continuing to use our Web site as a key tactic, we posted an updated story on Dalnews to reassure internal audiences that we were taking the situation seriously. The media interest returned, providing us with more opportunities to communicate our key messages. Of particular note was a piece for CBC television, where for the first time we put our university veterinarian on-camera and allowed the journalist to tour our animal care center.
We had to overcome institutional hurdles for this to take place, but this opportunity allowed Dalhousie communicators to alter a long-standing, but increasingly indefensible policy barring any media from seeing “behind the curtain” and instead show an institution with nothing to hide.
Students Create a Counter-Attack
Our efforts in traditional media were aided in social media by a group of Dalhousie students who started a counter-group on Facebook: “Stop People from Spreading Lies About Animal Cruelty at Dalhousie.” Within 72 hours, it had amassed more than 800 members and became the gathering point for people looking to show their support for Dalhousie’s position. These students proved effective spokespeople because they were acting entirely on their own accord and were directly involved with animal research themselves. We reached out to the students to ensure consistent messaging, a relationship welcomed by both sides.
Within a few days, we began to see the results of these combined tactics. With pro-Dalhousie commentary dominating online, and with our side of the story accessible through our Web site and dozens of online news outlets, the growth in Scott’s group began to slow. Reporters lost interest as it became clear that she had no interest in defending her claims.
Effective Damage Control
The group remains on Facebook. Its membership recently crossed the 30,000 mark, and Scott has again removed the discussion board, but growth is slow and her attempts to further action among its members have failed. Our office continues to monitor the group daily, but have reached the point where we are confident that we have communicated our messages in enough different media that audiences can readily locate our side of the story and decide the truth for themselves.
Dalhousie has learned much as a result of the Facebook challenge. The most obvious vacuum that needed addressing was the lack of dedicated resources to the new media function. Our communications and marketing office has created the new position of new media officer to help Dalhousie avoid surprises in the changing media landscape. The publicity around the group also forced members of the university community to constructively evaluate our use of animals in research and reaffirm commitments to ethical and humane treatment of animals that had not been communicated on a consistent basis. We now prominently display this information as the cornerstone of our animal care website.
While the Facebook group lives on, its utility as a tool to damage Dalhousie has been blunted. By using facts and by being transparent and accountable, but most importantly by understanding the culture of social media outlets such as Facebook, we were able to take a damaging reputation issue and turn it into an opportunity to showcase our commitment to responsible research and communications.
This article was written by Charles Crosby, media relations manager and Ryan McNutt. new media officer at Dalhousie University. It was excerpted from the PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility, Volume 2. To order a copy, visit the http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/.