Yikes! Attack of the killer viral fruit bats

How do institutions cope when their online profile suddenly bites back? Sarah Cunnane reports

May 27, 2010

It is every university public relations department's worst nightmare: an internal human resources matter attracts interest online and quickly becomes a viral sensation, resulting in widespread criticism over a matter that the institution is unable to comment on.

As the dust settles on the case of Dylan Evans, a lecturer at University College Cork who was accused of sexual harassment after showing a colleague a paper on oral sex among fruit bats, universities are left taking stock of the potential PR pitfalls of the Web 2.0 age.

"The use of social media in higher education varies so widely," said Rachel Reuben, director of web communications at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

While many universities are "immersed in social media and actively monitoring and involved with their social media outposts", others may be complacent, she said.

"Those who haven't made it a priority likely don't truly understand the impact social media can have," she said.

Blogs quickly picked up Dr Evans' story, and Twitter users were able to follow reaction to the events via the hashtag #fruitbatgate.

With the story updating by the hour as documents relating to the case appeared online alongside YouTube videos and even a Facebook group titled "UCC Fruit Bat Sex Abstinence Club", the traditional PR response was not quick enough to keep up.

"This is where you need strong media management," writes Ferdinand von Prondzynski, president of Dublin City University, on his blog.

"As far as I can tell - and I have looked - the university has made no attempt to tell its side of the story, or even just to explain why it cannot do so."

Barry Taylor, former communications director at the University of Bristol, agreed that traditional university PR methods were not equipped to cope when a news story "goes viral".

"I'm not sure everyone in higher education has cottoned on that some aspects of old-style PR are seriously unwell, if not deceased," he said.

"If a campaign of opposition goes viral, the average university communications office is probably in trouble."

At such a time, universities' use of social media could come to the fore, Ms Reuben said. "The true value of social media is two-way dialogue," she said.

However, Mr Taylor warned that universities should not depend on social media to redress any imbalance in views online.

"The attack can be so rapid and the attackers so numerous that it can be impossible to muster sufficient bloggers and tweeters to launch an effective counterattack," he said.

"To use the horrible marketing-speak, it's all about getting the product right and not worrying overly about the rest. In general, people will think and speak well of your organisation, in the social media and elsewhere, if it's doing its best."

In the case of "Fruitbatgate", as the saga has been dubbed, many people who initially criticised University College Cork online appear to have subsequently reconsidered their position.

Stephen Kinsella, lecturer in economics at the University of Limerick, says in his blog that he was responsible for starting the #fruitbatgate tag on Twitter.

"I think now that I was wrong in my wholesale and uncritical support of Dr Evans, without first verifying the facts of his case," he says.

"I believe I got swept up by the whole affair, and I've reflected quite critically on my actions in the past few days as a result of this."


BAD NEWS BEARERS: The Academy's Recent PR Challenges

- Climategate

"Climategate" saw the University of East Anglia become the subject of unwelcome global media attention after emails from staff at its Climatic Research Unit were seized on by global-warming sceptics who claimed that the correspondence was evidence of misconduct by scientists.

The scandal led to inquiries from the Commons Science and Technology Committee and an independent Science Assessment Panel commissioned by UEA.

- Student dropout data

In February 2009 it was revealed that London Metropolitan University had been overpaid tens of millions of pounds in public money after providing inaccurate information about student dropouts.

Vice-chancellor Brian Roper resigned in March 2009 and all board members who were in place in the period up to August 2008 followed suit.

- Admissions controversy

In 2003, the University of Bristol was accused of having a bias in its admissions system in favour of state-school students. The dispute became a major news story when top private schools threatened to boycott the university and applications to study at Bristol dropped by 5 per cent.

- Lust and science

Two university heads flew too close to the sun when they made inflammatory comments about women.

Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, suggested in a speech in 2005 that women had less aptitude for science and engineering than men. The claim is said to have directly contributed to his resignation.

Last year, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, found himself in hot water after suggesting in Times Higher Education that female students were a "perk" of the job.

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