This week, former FBI Director Louis Freeh confirmed what most people following the Jerry Sandusky scandal have believed  since the story was first reported; that the most senior Penn State officials knew about the coach's reprehensible acts and did nothing to protect the children he was abusing for more than a decade. The only conclusion one can draw is that former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley, and the late head coach Joe Paterno believed that whispers about Sandusky's gruesome acts were safely confined within community walls. As long as they kept the lid tightly shut, the accusations would never spring forth from this particular Pandora's Box.
Among their many greater sins, they failed to understand the transparent nature of this digital age--that institutional privacy has vanished and everything is now discoverable. As a result, the rest of us have been provided a salient lesson in how high-risk, low-authority chatter ought not to be ignored by anyone responsible for protecting a brand or high-profile reputation (not to mention children at risk).
When 22-year-old reporter Sara Ganim broke the Sandusky story open, she did so by following up on conversations she stumbled across on Penn State's own online message boards --conversations that Penn State officials either were not monitoring or disregarded as not credible enough to ever cross the thinning line between rumor and "real news." After all, a few community members posting on an internal social network don't carry the weight of 60 Minutes or the New York Times. The content was certainly damaging, but it was being circulated by folks who seemingly lacked the influence to be widely believed.
The problem, however, is that the message board postings were, by definition, the breed of high-risk, low-authority conversations that can cause real problems in the social media era. All potential news falls into one of four categories. Let's stick with the Penn State example and add a few hypothetical stories to illustrate the point:
- High-risk/high-authority: The Wall Street Journal publishes front-page accusations that Jerry Sandusky has been abusing children for years. This is the moment the story goes viral.
- Low-risk/high-authority: The Wall Street Journal publishes a back-page report that freshman applications at Penn State are down slightly from the previous year.
- High-risk/low-authority: Community members post to a message board that Jerry Sandusky may be abusing children. This is the moment that institutions should be on notice. Monitor aggressively and advise decision makers of the rumors and that, critically, they are no longer operating in a vacuum.
- Low-risk/low-authority: A student posts to a message board that the dining hall food gave him athlete's foot.
Companies and organizations know how to deal with three of the four quadrants outlined above. High-risk, high-authority stories need to be dealt with aggressively and immediately. Low-risk, low-authority stories are best left alone. And low-risk, high-authority stories may require some form of response, but nothing on the level of a national news conference.
It's when we come to the high-risk, low-authority stories that we see companies and organizations stumble. Penn State is not alone. It is the warning shot across the bow. Your risks may not be pedophilia, but what enterprise risks are people talking about now that provide you early warning?
Time and again, we've seen children's product companies fail to take what's written on the Mommy blogs  seriously. We've seen food producers ignore what the plaintiffs' bar is writing  on its blogs as it searches for the next big class action case. And we've seen single customer service snafus detailed on YouTube  evolve into national scandals before the purveyor of said service even knows what hit it. And it's not just bloggers and social media. It's all sources. How does your company stack up in search engines when you type in risk terms, not just the name of your company or brand? When you whistle past Penn State, don't whistle too loudly.
The advent of social media has provided even the most low-authority sources with a megaphone that helps their messages reach the mainstream media, plaintiffs' attorneys, regulators, analysts, and others who can do lasting harm to a brand or reputation. At the same time, however, it's most important to note that social media have also provided companies and organizations with a crystal ball of sorts--a tool by which they can see into the future to identify the issues that may eviscerate their brands in the coming hours, months or years. Of course, that's only true if they take the time to study the tea leaves.
How can other companies and organizations best ensure that they stay on top of high-risk, low-authority issues?
- Institutionalize a social media monitoring structure: The task is greater than simply having interns or assistants hand over an aggregation of Google News items each morning. Companies need to make use of the myriad analytical tools available to know what is being said about their brands online, who is saying it, and--perhaps most important--who and how many people are listening.
- Include risk and competitive analyses: Companies can't just scour the Web for mentions of their brands or leadership; they need to anticipate their greatest brand risks and include related risk terms in their sweeps as well--whether they be "product recall," "bribery," or "white collar." When worrisome chatter is detected, they also need to perform competitive analyses that tell them if the problem is theirs alone or an industry-wide trend. To return to the PSU example, this would have meant looking at the social media buzz surrounding Notre Dame, Pitt, and other similar institutions to see if speculation about football coaches' behavior is as rampant across the NCAA as it was in State College.
- Understand that low-authority sources matter: A recent Agenda article authored by Amanda Gerut  details just how much weight some forward-thinking companies lend to social media chatter. Coca-Cola, for instance, uses social media to "head off thorny issues." Proctor & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald is personally involved in the monitoring process, saying "I personally see the comments about the P&G brand. This allows for real-time reaction to what's going on in the marketplace, because we know that if something happens in a blog and you don't react immediately--or, worse, you don't know about it--it could spin out of control by the time you get involved." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Once we step back from the negligence carried out by PSU officials, we begin to see how they could believe such inaction was even possible. They made the fundamental mistake of believing that low-authority sources lack the power to take down an empire. Don't make the same mistake. The emperor's clothes are as invisible as they've ever been--even if the garment in question is a navy blue football uniform.
Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications , represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters--from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship's list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis , and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardLevick  and circle him on Google+ , where he comments daily on brands.
[Image: Flickr user Phil Roeder ]