Social media has become a large part of our daily routine, so much so that sometimes people take it for granted. In the 2010 movie The Social Network, a dramatization about the origins of Facebook, a character named Erica tells the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, “the internet’s not written in pencil Mark, it’s written in ink.” It’s more important now than ever before to keep track of what social media profiles and what is posted to help prevent a self-inflicted crisis.
“I think in my experience students often feel like their social media platforms are their personal space, and they use platforms like a journal and adiary, as well as a way to chronicle their life experiences,” says Dr. Andrew Pyle over the phone. “A student who makes a decision to create the persona online of someone who parties hard, that is going to be the persona that a potential future employer sees.”
On April 19th, as the keynote speaker of the Department of Applied Communication’s Alumni Reunion and Awards Ceremony, Dr. Andrew Pyle will be delivering the final talk in our Second Annual Leadership Lecture Series on how to help prevent these self-inflicted crises. Before his speech, we talked with him about how he got into the communication field and what kind of research he does at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Why did you pursue a career in communication? Is it a field you always wanted to get into?
Dr. Pyle: When I started my undergrad, I started as an education major because I always knew I wanted to teach, and I thought if I wanted to teach, that means I need to major in education. Over the course of my undergrad career, I discovered that you don’t have to major in education if you want to teach at the collegiate level; you need to focus on a discipline. I had taken coursework in communication and realized this was really interesting and appealing and something I wanted to study and pursue. My freshman year I switched from education to communication. Dr. Linda Pledger taught a couple of electives at my undergrad institution, and through speaking with her I learned about the M.A. program in Applied Communication at UA Little Rock. So after talking with her and meeting with the former chair, Dr. Rob Ulmer, I decided to apply and got accepted and had a wonderful experience there.
I ended up working with Dr. Ulmer on my master’s thesis, looking at crisis communication during the deepwater horizon oil spill response, and it was through working with him that I learned about the field of crisis communication. That was a shift for me because going into the M.A. program I didn’t even know that was an area that existed, and I was really in love with cultural communication. But then I got recruited over to the area of crisis study.
I knew I wanted to teach at the university level at that point, so I looked around for some Ph.D. programs and ended up at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, to study risk and crisis communication as well. I maintained a focus on crisis communication but was able to integrate my study of intercultural communication in my Ph.D. program. I was able to work with emergency responders who deployed to international contexts after disasters to do urban search and rescue work.
What was your experience at UA Little Rock like?
Dr. Pyle: The first thing that comes to mind is Dr. Kristen McIntyre’s organizational training summer course. It was an intensive summer course to become a trainer and teach. That was one of the most challenging courses I’ve taken, and it was one of the most meaningful courses I’ve taken. To this day the things I learned in that course shape the way I teach. She is an incredible instructor; she really models the things she teaches. If sometime before I retire, I can be half the teacher that Dr. McIntyre is, then I will have succeeded as a teacher.
That was one of those experiences that just stood out beyond what was a wonderful experience and a great program.
What are you teaching at Clemson?
Dr. Pyle: This semester I’m teaching one section of public relations writing and two sections of public relations non-profits. I also teach other courses in that track, so I have a course in crisis communication and a course on intercultural communication. I also work with our grad students.
Tell me about some of the research you do at Clemson.
Dr. Pyle: Coming to Clemson, where I am now in my fourth year, a big area of focus here is social media research. We have a social media listening center and we’re able to pull data from social media platforms and blogs and comments and articles. I started looking at researching in that area, and I became interested in the idea of self-inflicted crisis events.
For example, when you have someone who doesn’t realize they’re using a corporate Twitter account instead of their personal account, and they tweet something that goes viral. There’s all sort of instances of people who have lost jobs and not gotten jobs because of their social media engagement. You have organizations like Dove, a few months ago, when they had that video of an African American woman taking off a shirt and turning into a white woman. Nivea had an ad last year that said: “white is purity.” A lot of these things end up being either poor editing or cultural misunderstandings, like the Dove example was actually edited down from a larger commercial and the people who were editing, just didn’t notice that they had cut the segment in the way they did. They just weren’t paying attention.
The Nivea ad from last year was part of a campaign in Southeast Asia where a beauty expectation is to have fair skin. But that’s not how that message plays in English in a western context. There’s just some cultural gaps and poor decisions and poor research and poor planning that lead to these self-inflicted crises that are very preventable. So, in planning this leadership lecture, Dr. April and I were talking about the importance of positive communication and thinking, in terms of the department’s mission.
Are there more examples of corporations getting themselves into a self-inflicted crisis?
Urban Outfitters produces products that are just blatantly offensive. Probably a couple of times a year, Urban Outfitters is in the news for having produced something that is in poor taste or offensive. They produced a game of ghettopoly. They produced a sweatshirt designed to look like it was worn by someone killed in a shooting. So you have everything from “we made a mistake” to what I would say is just unethical business practices, resulting in bad press. I study some of these examples and scenarios. That’s going to be the focus of my talk – how these things develop and how they can be avoided. When they happen what do you do next? Where do you go from here?
A year ago Urban Outfitters’ sales were down all four quarters last year. They have lost social media following. I suspect that it was tied to a philosophy of any press is good press. They apologized eventually, but it’s unconvincing when you have an organization like that just keeps doing these things.
How do you prevent something like this from happening?
Dr. Pyle: In both instances, I think the most important take away is whatever context you find yourself in. For the most part, the cases I’ll look at are very preventable. When you find yourself in the role of a communicator both in your private life and professional life, don’t allow distraction or boredom or busyness to steal your mindfulness. We take digital spaces for granted. and we treat them like playgrounds, but there also very serious places, and things that happen in digital spaces live there forever. On the front end, engage with care, so you don’t find yourself in one of these self-inflicted crises situations. But if you do find yourself in one of these contexts, be honest, be upfront, and apologize for mistakes when you make them. By and large, people are forgiving when people acknowledge mistakes that are made and act with humility. They are relentlessly unforgiving to people who try to hide mistakes that have happened, try to lie about it, and try to shove off blame onto someone else.
Inevitably a potential future employer is going to go looking for a promising looking candidate online. That is life now. If the main impression a potential employer gets from a digital footprint is rampant alcohol, or heaven forbid, illicit drug use, that can cause at a personal level that self-inflicted crisis event. Those spaces are not private journals; those are truly public spaces.
How do you get yourself out of a self-inflicted crisis?
My favorite example of an organization handling one of these well is Digiorno Pizza. When #whyistayed was starting up, someone on their social media team, without researching the hashtag, jumped on and said: “#whyistayed because you had pizza.” The response was immediate and quite powerful. They responded immediately and deleted the tweet and responded with a personalized apology to everyone who tweeted at them. Within a few hours, people who initially criticized Digiorno started defending Digiorno to other people who were learning about it later one. It was really fascinating to watch that happen.
Because this lecture is also doubling as an alumni reunion are you excited to see anyone again?
Absolutely! The cohort ahead of mine, my cohort, and the cohort behind me are the alumni I connected most closely with, as well as the students who were skill center interns while I was working there as a grad assistant. So there’s a lot of alumni I’m hoping to connect with while I’m in town.
With a 13 hour drive, it’s not easy to come back into town.