Behind The Scenes of @penn_state
If you ‘like’ Penn State’s Facebook page, you’re no stranger to posts like this one that come scrolling onto your timeline every Friday.
But what gets delivered to you as brief, digitized moments in history are the result of a series of behind-the-scenes efforts by Geoff Rushton, Penn State’s Office of Social Media Manager, and his colleagues in the Department of Public Information.
Rushton and two other digital media specialists are the faces behind Penn State’s various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, Vine, and others.
Though his team tends to divide up most of the posting and editing responsibilities, Rushton — who has held his current position since September 2011 and is a Penn State grad himself — said he sends about 75 percent of @penn_state’s tweets.
So how does he decide what to post?
“We look at the strengths of the university and try to determine how a post fits with those strengths,” Rushton said. “Does it illustrate our academics? Our student experience? Our impact? Our research?”
Rushton said the “Flashback Friday” initiative began when an archive enthusiast in the Department of Public Information started digging up old photos that would get a lot of likes, shares, and retweets after being posted. Now, that staff member systematically chooses potential photos, finds corresponding information, and passes them off for Rushton to choose and post every Friday.
“It’s something that we think is worth the effort because it speaks to so many people,” Rushton said. “It engenders that feeling that you’re part of something historic.”
And while posting images of iconic campus sites does consistently elicit positive responses — Rushton joked that an Instagram of the Lion Shrine, Beaver Stadium, or Mount Nittany is almost guaranteed to garner a lot of ‘likes’ — the posts and images that he thinks audiences are most fond of are those that focus on student successes. A recent example: this post about Penn State ranking 8th among the best public schools in the country according to U.S. News & World Report.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Rushton and his social media team.
In November 2011, when Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes and a grand jury presentment was made public, Penn State’s social media accounts were thrust into the spotlight.
“Early on, there wasn’t a whole lot that we were able to share, so after a day and a half we started telling people that we would share information as we got it, that we understood their outrage, and that we were listening,” Rushton said. “From then on, once everything started coming out, we would share it on our platforms.” For those curious, these appear to be the first two tweets sent by @penn_state about the scandal:
Statement from the President has not yet been posted online. We’ll share it here. “The allegations about a former coach are troubling…”
— Penn State (@penn_state) November 5, 2011
“…and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance…”
— Penn State (@penn_state) November 5, 2011
While disseminating information, Rushton and his team simultaneously monitored the comments that were pouring in on Facebook and Twitter, an endeavor that nearly had them working around the clock.
“There were three of us, and we worked pretty much from sun-up until well after midnight,” Rushton said. “We were careful not to delete or block anyone if they were just being critical, but we were keeping our eyes out for issues that might arise.” Rushton elaborated to say that comments containing extreme profanity or jokes about child abuse were the kinds of posts that he and his team would delete.
Challenging still, was figuring out how to strike the right tone on social media while moving forward. Rushton said that learning how to “take the temperature” of Penn State’s social media audience and gauging when was an appropriate time to post certain kinds of material became his team’s biggest responsibility.
By Rushton’s own estimation, he waited to post anything not related to the scandal on Facebook until ten days after the grand jury presentment was first released. On Twitter, he said it was 13 days before he posted anything not related to the scandal. Our search shows that this was @penn_state’s first non-scandal related tweet, posted Nov. 18:
Penn State astronomers capture video of aircraft carrier-sized asteroid: http://t.co/0AMMimFD
— Penn State (@penn_state) November 18, 2011
“As we’d share more positive things, the people who were outraged certainly continued to be outraged, but what we were left with was a community of people who really wanted to rally around the positive things,” Rushton said.
Going forward, Rushton said he and his team will continue to reference two important lessons from running social media during the height of the scandal: be organized, and make sure to carefully consider wording in social media posts.
“We’re really cautious about what we posting and tweet,” Rushton said. “We’re constantly thinking about the way words could be misconstrued or how someone might make a joke out of certain words.”
Now, he continues to reference other universities’ social media presences — Syracuse and Michigan, for example — while fine-tuning Penn State’s approach to social media and growing the accounts. Rushton noted that under his tenure, Penn State’s Twitter account has grown from having about 5,000 followers to about 50,000. He also added that in the past three months, Penn State’s Facebook page gained about 20,000 likes, bringing the account to its current audience: 315,000 ‘likes.’
“We have a strong physical community, and that translates to a strong online community,” Rushton said. “People have differing opinions about certain things, but at the end of the day, they all care about this place and want to see it do well.”