One of a public relations officer's worst nightmares is a lie that won't go away, and Dalhousie University recently confronted a doozy: that it was experimenting on cuddly, doe-eyed puppies and kittens.
Normally in such situations, a university might take steps to release information that rebuts the charges, or it might make contact with the source of the allegations. But in this case the statements in question were online, contained within a group on the social-networking Web site Facebook, and accessible to anyone with an account. The group, called "Stop Dogs and Puppies from being murdered at Dalhousie University" (free Facebook registration required) currently boasts more than 22,000 members and was founded by someone who apparently was never even a student there.
Now, after an inital attempt to have the group removed from Facebook failed, the university is considering its legal options. "It’s a clear case of defamation," said Charles Crosby, media relations manager at Dalhousie, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The case illustrates not only how a university confronts allegations, but the evolving ways in which damaging information is spreading from multiple, uncontrollable sources online.
When the university first heard about the group, it attempted to contact Facebook directly to remove the group. The problem wasn't necessarily the group itself, Crosby maintained, but that the creator was "not willing to allow free discussion to take place" by turning off the "wall," where members can post messages for all in the group to see, and removing the discussion board where potential criticisms or rebuttals could be voiced. Dalhousie officials never heard back from Facebook directly, but they noticed last week that it had been removed. ("Actually getting [through to] a human being is more difficult than one would hope," Crosby noted.)
This week, the group was back online -- with the wall and discussion board intact. Crosby said he believes that posts offensive to the group's creator are still being deleted or marked as irrelevant, but several critical messages were visible. One student wrote, "I'd like to ask where is the hardcore proof? I've been at Dal for over 3 years now and walked around campus hundred [sic] maybe even thousands of times and never have [I] seen or heard anything like you are accusing here!"
The evidence posted by the group's creator consists mainly of links to other Web sites, such as the page of a Dalhousie researcher in cardiovascular surgery and transplants that mentions "a model of intestinal ischemia in the rabbit" and "the model of denervated dog heart."
For the record, Crosby said, the university hasn't done testing on dogs for at least six years, although the exact date is hard to pinpoint because of mismatches between research and the final published studies. At the time, the practice was probably unusual for a Canadian university, but the institution mainly uses rodents and insects today. "Obviously, the university’s preference would be not to use any live animals," he said.
Unfortunately for Dalhousie and other universities that have confronted similar issues in recent years, often an institution won't realize the potential (destructive or otherwise) of social networking and other Web 2.0-identified sites until it's almost too late.
"There might be a crisis situation before P.R. offices are looking at such sites," said Andrew Careaga, director of communications at the University of Missouri-Rolla and author of the Higher Ed Marketing blog.
In other words, some institutions are on a learning curve. "It’s something we’re all getting our heads around," Crosby said. "We’ve been exploring Facebook for months.… We’re just kind of ramping up on this new technology, and it’s a fast-moving technology.... It is a challenge for all of us, it’s something new that we’ll have to learn."
And even if a college or university is Web-savvy, with full-time employees trolling blogs daily, there is no agreed-upon way to handle the fallout of a potential public relations disaster. Should officials go straight to the source? Threaten legal action? Launch a P.R. counteroffensive?
"I think there’s in general a heightened awareness of sites such as Facebook and other social networking sites, and at least many universities and many university P.R. offices are starting to recognize that these sites can spread information or misinformation very quickly," Careaga said. "As far as how universities are addressing this issue, I think it’s probably all over the board, some maybe more proactive than others."
The general strategy is rooted in what they've always dealt in -- managing public information and working with news media outlets. Whether it's the realm of old media or new, some of the tactics can be similar, some experts suggested. But their reach may now be limited.
"On the one hand, universities have always had to deal with publishing of inaccurate information," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president for communications and marketing at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents alumni and public relations officers. "What’s changed is that now that everyone in the world is a self-publisher, inaccurate information can not only be distributed quickly, but it can be shared quickly. It’s very easy for anyone to put anything he wants up on a Web site, or on Facebook."
Universities have "in essence lost control over information about themselves, if they ever really had it," she said.
Now, they can face information online from any number of sources -- including their own students. Litigation isn't the most common response, but sometimes universities can come back with their own information campaigns. "Sometimes you have to be creative, establish your own lines of communication. You’ve got to be very proactive, you have to ... pick your battles, because not all of them are going to be worth your time and energy to fight," Goldsmith suggested.
Dalhousie, for its part, is highlighting efforts by other students to counter the original group. One, a Facebook group called "Stop People From Spreading Lies About Animal Cruelty At Dalhousie", was started by a student who works in a laboratory at the university. Still, they've got an uphill battle: Only a little over 400 members have joined that group, which can't match the visceral hook of a vulnerable beagle puppy displayed on the original's page. "This is an emotional issue to start with," said Frankie L. Trull, the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which supports the use of animals in research.
The "Stop Dogs and Puppies from being murdered" group comes from a long and venerable tradition of student activism over animal testing on campuses, but there was no evidence that it was part of a coordinated campaign. "There’s been activity on college campuses for years, but as technology changes, so do they," Trull said. "On the one hand, it’s not really new; on the other hand the fact that it’s so much easier to use a variety of communication venues like the Internet gives rise to increased activity."
Still, sometimes the low-tech solution is the most effective. Facebook, being the 21st-century success story that it is, doesn't list telephone contacts on its Web site at all. So Crosby and his team tried a different route when they sought removal of the offending group: the Palo Alto phonebook, which finally yielded a person they could talk to.
Teresa Valerio Parrot, the senior project director for SimpsonScarborough, a marketing strategy firm that consults for higher education institutions, agreed: "Sometimes going back to one of the things that we used to do once upon a time, like pick up the telephone, doesn’t hurt."