A decade ago, Nancy Peterson would probably still be on the Davis School Board. In fact, a better handling of the matter at hand and she would probably be, as well. But one clear thing that the demise of Nancy Peterson illustrates is how much influence social media and new media now make in the handling of a crisis.
In our initial rollout of the story, it was another controversial firing of a high school official and the mystery that surrounds such personnel matters. And, even on the first day of coverage, this story figured to take on a life of its own. The school board had just released a statement that they had voted 4-0 to hear the appeal.
An interesting question at this point is what if the Petersons, in the face of criticism, had simply decided to allow the controversy to run its course. After all, the previous controversy ran its course, and the firing of the basketball coach or high school principal did not bring down board members.
However, the Petersons were taking a beating in the press – particularly the new media, whether it was Facebook, the Davis Hub, or the Vanguard, and so they decided to make their first major mistake in this crisis and leak the letter from HR Director Matt Best to the Davis Enterprise.
While employment law experts disagree with the perception of the report, the perception on social media and in the comment section of the Vanguard is that language like “more likely than not” and “was influenced, at least in part” was weak and equivocal and that language gave critics of Nancy Peterson and supporters of Julie Crawford ammunition to push back.
But the Petersons also fed the frenzy. By leaking that there was an investigation to the press, it alerted the Vanguard and Bob Dunning to look into cost and when the cost came out as $22,000, it fed into a wave of anger and disbelief that a district in financial crisis would spend this much investigating the cut of a player who just happened to be a child of a school board member.
In the days before social media and news websites with comments, the only public outlet would have been organizing and a letter writing campaign – a slow and cumbersome process. With social media, the reach of comments and community discussion is unprecedented. New information went viral.
The toll was clear two weeks ago, when Robert Peterson made his ill-fated decision to get up and speak during public comment. He was responding to criticism and blamed blogs and Facebook for the spread of disinformation.
The truth is that the Petersons never really figured out how to counter this information source, they never figured out how to utilize it to their advantage. Instead of engaging with the public and assuaging their concerns, they took to the 30,000 foot strategy.
They did an interview on I-See-Davis that inflamed people when Ms. Peterson told people that they needed to calm down, implying that she knew best.
Even the push back from Nancy Peterson supporters came in ways that did not mesh with new media realities. The message the Vanguard received was that if we only knew what really happened, we would be supportive of Nancy Peterson. But of course they could never state what really happened and they could never explain the string of mistakes that Ms. Peterson made that publicly inflamed the situation.
Despite all of this, Nancy Peterson might have survived this had it not been for the critical error of publishing the op-ed last Sunday in the Enterprise. What she was thinking, we may never know.
From our perspective by late last week, this story had really died down. It would have come back for the appeal itself, but other than the school board pushing for mediation at last Thursday’s meeting, the story had faded into the background.
That all changed when Nancy Peterson published the op-ed. It is not just what she said, but what she did not state. She did not take any responsibility, she did not admit any errors, she presented her daughter and her family as the unequivocal victims.
The world, however, has changed. Top-down, one-way communications no longer work. In the old days, the story would have run in Sunday’s paper, it might have been until Thursday before the letters of outrage came to the paper. Who knows what effect that would have had.
What we know now is that, before the op-ed even hit the print addition, there were dozens of comments on the Enterprise. The Vanguard picked it up and that article and several follow ups resulted in hundreds of comments and thousands of readers.
The backlash was clear and the few voices of support were drowned under an avalanche of criticism.
A new phenomenon emerged – crowdsourcing. As parents and players and former coaches weighed in and commented, new information emerged. Former Coach Leigh Whitmire Choate, for instance, was able to fill in the background that informed the public that the disagreement went back several years to the date when Ms. Peterson was an assistant coach and Ms. Choate was the coach.
To date, no one has refuted her rendition of facts.
The amazing thing about this volleyball controversy is the difference between the official, traditional reporting and new media. The Enterprise itself had a number of stories in which they actually carried the message of the Petersons. Their official op-ed attempted to split the baby and call out both sides for putting children in the middle of their complaints.
The op-ed was that of Nancy Peterson and there were a few but not a huge number of letters to the editor.
Only Bob Dunning was critical of the Nancy Peterson version and a lot of his attention focused on the cost of the investigation.
Had this been ten years ago, this would have been the only source of information and the counter-campaign would have needed considerable more energy. New media allowed for real-time criticism to occur and real-time backlash to be generated.
Without that backlash to Ms. Peterson’s op-ed, it is highly unlikely she would have resigned.
Some people, particularly her defenders, will undoubtedly see this in a negative light. The truth is, new technology is only a tool. It can be used in a variety of different ways.
Where Nancy Peterson may have been undone is that she was still trying to fight a traditional media fight in an era of new media. 30,000 foot campaigns do not work. When public distrust is involved, telling people to “trust” and “calm down” do not work.
Some will say that the problem is that this was a personnel matter and she was unable to get her side of the story out. I would argue that, from the leak to the press, the interview on I-See-Davis, the public comment by Robert Peterson and finally, her op-ed, she did get her side of the story out.
The problem was, she did so in an arrogant and condescending manner that blew back on her. The problem was not that she did not get her side of the story out, it’s that she talked down to the public rather than engaging them in dialogue.
She clearly failed to calculate that the leak would blow right back on her, unless she provided enough information to assure the public that her side of the story was the right side of the story.
The amazing thing is that Ms. Peterson resigned with almost no criticism from her colleagues other than their request to remove the district as a battleground, with almost no calls from the traditional media to resign, and almost no negative articles in the mainstream press. This was truly a new media resignation and it is a lesson every leader needs to learn and learn quickly.
—David M. Greenwald reporting