In the early weeks of December, rumors were flying around who was going to be named the new head football coach at Vanderbilt University. Newspaper accounts, blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter streams would veer from one name to the next, at one point elevating a candidate to a top Twitter and Facebook trending topic. But at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, all eyes were focused on Vanderbilt as the source of information, as the university’s Facebook page announced James Franklin as the new head coach, pointing interested readers to a full-blown website, complete with biographical information, photos and, as the day went on, videos. Melanie Moran, Vanderbilt’s director of web communications and associate director of the Vanderbilt News Service, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how the university used social media not just to attract attention, but to focus it on the facts and the key messages.
Generally speaking, what is the philosophy behind social media use at Vanderbilt?
Social media lets Vanderbilt engage in conversations with our audiences wherever they are. We use social media for good news, bad news, emergencies – everything. These tools enable us to hear what our audiences are most interested in and give them dynamic and engaging content in ways that are most accessible to them. It’s an important set of communication tools and one we’ve been progressive about integrating into all of our communication efforts for years now.
Why was social media so important to the overall rollout plan for this announcement?
The discussion of the coach search – and so many of the conversations about college athletics overall – lived in social media. We wanted and needed to be where those conversations were happening, which was on Facebook, on Twitter and on blogs. We also knew, given the chatter around this and any major coaching announcement, it was unlikely we’d be truly “breaking” the story. With that in mind, we wanted our fans to hear from us, first, directly and officially, who would be leading the Commodores into the future. Our fans are active and vocal on Facebook, so we went there first. We immediately followed up with all the traditional mainstream channels and also engaged pretty extensively on Twitter.
What were your key messages and who were your key audiences?
Our key messages were it is a new day for Vanderbilt football, and the entire institution is behind this announcement. Vanderbilt excels in every area and the time has come for us to excel in football. Our key audiences were our students, faculty and staff, our alumni and fans, the Nashville community and the sports world in general.
How much of your effort was proactive versus reactive?
Our effort was almost entirely proactive – we planned every step of the way and had a pretty large team managing all of the pieces — from video, to photography, to web development, to social media, copy and more. Because there was so much buzz and discussion going on around this topic already, we wanted to be sure to provide plenty of exclusive and early content about Coach Franklin — from photos of him arriving at the Nashville airport with his family posted on Flickr, to live and quickly archived streaming video of the press conference, to a central “coach” website that served as a clearinghouse and focal point. The real control, and by that I mean restraint, came in not being overly reactive when things started getting a little ugly. We knew we’d hired a great coach, we knew the entire institution is behind making him and his program a success, and we knew people would be critical of pretty much anything we did because we had such a rough season. The key was staying engaged and contributing unique content to the conversation.
How would you assess the impact of this effort?
The impact will be ongoing – but I think we can call this a success if we can continue to have fans talking, with us, about the team, joining in the momentum that Coach Franklin kicked off with Chancellor Zeppos and Vice Chancellor Williams at the press conference, and filling the stands next fall. I think it also shows definitively that social media is a cornerstone to our communication efforts, and we hope one of the impacts will be that fans continue to engage with us using those channels for all things Vanderbilt.
What did you learn along the way?
True two-way communication on a hot topic like this is going to be messy, and you need to prepare yourself for a bumpy ride if you really want to engage when it matters. That means being willing to let some negative dialogue ride. Not putting big news on Facebook simply isn’t an option – that is where many of our audiences get their news, so we’re there, just like we’re on Twitter, on YouTube, at press conferences, on our website, etc. So we learned that these tools are no longer just nice-to-have additions but are in many ways at the center of our efforts.
And we reaffirmed our commitment to our social media policy and philosophy of openness and non–censorship. We were not going to throw that out of the window when things started getting tough. We monitored the comments for what we always monitor for – vulgarity, obscenity and outright hate speech – but refrained from deleting anything from folks who simply were blowing off steam. Once Coach Franklin appeared at the press conference and made such a strong and positive impression, the tide turned on both Facebook and Twitter. We learned that when he became a person, not just an announcement, people began really listening, and we used every channel at our disposal to share what he had to say. Putting a face on Vanderbilt changed the discussion – and that’s a lesson we’ll continue to integrate into our efforts.
Would you do it again?