The tide starts a poisonous war: a case Study Analysis of Rival Universities

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The Tide Starts a Poisonous War: A Case Study Analysis of Rival Universities

Nichelle M. Smith

The University of South Alabama

The Tide Starts a Poisonous War:

A Case Study Analysis of Rival Universities

The University of Alabama and Auburn University have one common factor: an unapologetic love for football. Students that attend both universities form a bond extending beyond academics, creating a family like dynamic centered around football. Coined by the NFL as the nation’s number one college rival duo, Alabama and Auburn continue to be the main topic of discussion during college football season (Fischer, 2015).

On February 16, 2011, Auburn University learned that two oak trees located in Toomer’s Corner fell victim to fatal amounts of a controlled herbicide. This malicious act triggered a crisis for both universities, prompting the use of strategic communication tactics to regain their status in society. Toomer’s Corner is a well-loved location on Auburn University’s campus that is estimated to be around 130 years old (Albert, 2011). Toomer’s Corner is not just a historic landmark on campus, it also serves as a physical representation of how much school spirit Auburn students embody when they participate in “rolling the corner” (Waters, 2012).

Once Auburn received confirmation from lab tests, they announced to the public that the herbicide was indeed applied to the trees in lethal amounts. The announcement included one important detail; the person responsible for the poisoning was an unapologetic Alabama fan. Harvey Updyke was found guilty of poisoning the oak trees and was arrested the following day (Waters, 2012). During a radio interview Updyke stated, “ The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer’s trees, I put Spike 80DF in them. They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die” (Waters, 2012).

Updyke’s relentless actions not only deeply offended his rival team by terminating their most cherished tradition; he also jeopardized the reputation of The University of Alabama with his malicious act of unsportsmanlike conduct. At this time, it was apparent that both universities were in need of crisis management. According to the Public Relations Journal, “crisis management encompasses the overall strategic planning to prevent, mitigate, respond, and recover routine operations during a crisis or negative occurrence. This is a process that removes some of the risk and uncertainty, promotes long-term viability, and allows the organization to be in greater control of its destiny” (Ferguson, Wallace, & Chandler, 2012).

In the past, the rivalry between the two schools was always intense but remained civil. Although the University of Alabama was not in direct blame for the two poisoned oak trees, the rivalry itself was the driving force behind the detrimental action. The impact and severity of this unique case was monumental. Three major stakeholders were affected by this situation. The first group was comprised of Auburn’s current students and alumni, faculty and football fans. The second group included citizens of Auburn, Alabama who took pride in the landmark located on the University’s campus. The final group included Alabama students, faculty, alumni and fans (Waters, 2012).

Both Alabama and Auburn were faced with dilemmas that had to be carefully addressed using different strategies, goals and objectives. Auburn’s main goal was to convince students and fans not to retaliate by shaping the public’s view and encouraging positivity. Auburn communicated their goals to the public using many tactics. The first goal was publicized by Auburn President, Jay Gouge, as he offered quick words of wisdom to the Auburn family and advised them not to make any rash decisions regarding the incident” (Albert, 2 011). The day after Updyke’s arrest, Gouge concluded his statement saying, “It is understandable to feel outrage in reaction to a malicious act of vandalism. However, we should live up to the example we set in becoming national champions and the beliefs expressed in our Auburn Creed” (Waters, 2012). Also, a press conference was also held to discuss the detrimental incident where City of Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson cautioned students not to participate in retaliation of any kind. The intense and consistent communication efforts made by the University reassured the public that the situation would not be swept under the rug and would be handled properly.

Auburn repeatedly encouraged positivity to their students, fans and alumni. During another press conference held the day after the news was released, Vice President of alumni affairs Debbie Shaw said “These trees will likely die, but the Auburn spirit will continue to live on in the hearts of Auburn men and women.” (Waters, 2012). Creating a positive outlook on such a negative event minimized any adverse feelings that the public was likely to experience. “Without negative emotions fueling the public, the probability of retaliation diminished.” (Waters, 2012). To accomplish their goals, Auburn had three main objectives. The first objective was to provide continuous coverage of the case to keep the public informed. The second objective was to positively shape the public’s view of the case by applying the agenda setting theory. The last objective was to enforce an intolerance of any type of retaliation on behalf of Auburn. All three objectives use traditional and social media as an outlet (Waters, 2012).

The agenda setting theory focuses on how media shapes the thoughts and viewpoints of individuals when a particular incident takes place. The success rate of using the agenda setting theory is contingent upon the credibility of the media sources, the public's perception of information, and the public's need for information and guidance (Waters, 2012). Auburn enforced the agenda setting theory by carefully selecting the words and tone used in the messages they released. By placing an emphasis on positivity and consistency throughout their communication efforts, their publics were unknowingly persuaded in Auburn's favor.

Alabama, like Auburn, had to enforce the agenda setting theory to shape the views of their public. Alabama’s goals were to keep the public informed while restoring their image and emphasize that the University did not condone Updyke’s actions. An email written by Alabama’s public relations spokesperson, Deborah Elaine, stated, “The University of Alabama is glad that the individual responsible for damaging the trees will be held accountable. The individual who was arrested has never attended the University of Alabama and has never been a season ticket-holder. He is not affiliated with the university in any way” (Waters, 2012). Nick Saban, Alabama’s head football coach, also released a brief statement expressing disapproval and intolerance of Updyke’s actions. The email and brief statement from prominent members of the university expressing remorse and disgust on behalf of the University was widely accepted by the public.

Unfortunately, disassociating itself from Updyke would not suffice, the University had to implement various image restoration theories in order to completely repair their recently damaged image. Benoit’s tactics of shifting the blame, defeasibility and corrective action were used to fix their tarnished reputation. Although Alabama could not deny the act, they could prove that Updyke had no affiliation with the University. By shifting the blame away from the university and solely onto Updyke, they are making steps to successfully mending their image. The University of Alabama also used defeasibility clearly stating that they cannot control the actions of each fan. The final image restoration strategy used was corrective action. Although Alabama was not the culprit, the university still had to take actions to correct the wrongdoing of their fan. Corrective action was executed by Alabama by establishing a fund to help raise money to restore Toomer’s Corner, working with Auburn to plant more trees, and publishing articles that expressed disapproval in Updyke’s actions (Waters, 2012).

Alabama had three main objectives that all used traditional and social media to convey their message. The first objective was to constantly update the public as to what was going on as the case progressed. The second objective was to apply image restoration their to repair the damage imposed on the University’s image following the incident. The last objective was to repeatedly emphasize the disapproval of Updyke’s actions (Waters, 2012).

Both universities responded successfully to the crisis. Auburn's swift action to launch an information campaign communicated through social media, newspapers and news programs greatly benefited the University. Auburn's publics had a yearning for information about the trees and had to be appropriately guided on how to perceive the messages. “By applying agenda setting, Auburn effectively managed what information its publics received when they received the information, and how they perceived it” (Waters, 2012). The strategic communication techniques imposed by Auburn were successful because it effectively prevented any form of retaliation.

The University of Alabama's implementation of image repair strategies and agenda setting techniques successfully rebuilt their image also. “The strength of University of Alabama’s campaign was that it avoided any attempt at nuance and directly and effectively spoke and acted, successfully shifting the blame to where it belonged” (Waters, 2012). Using this tactic, Alabama showed the public that they were not in direct blame while sympathizing with their rival team.

Both universities informed the public and fostered communication using social media outlets. An array of social media outlets covered the event including Twitter, blogs, Facebook, discussion boards, and video streaming. The social media campaigns proved successful due to the high numbers of likes, which benefited both Universities. The largest symbol of success are the sister trees on each university’s campus, planted shortly after the incident, representing mutual respect for the age-old rivalry (Waters, 2012).

Albert, D. (2011, April 16). Toomer's Tragedy. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from
Ferguson, D., Wallace, J., & Chandler, R. (2012). Rehabilitating your Organization's Image. Public Relations Journal, 1-19. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from
Fischer, B. (2015, May 27). 15 for '15: College football's best rivalries. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from
Waters, S. (2012). The poisoning of an Icon: A Public Relations Challenge for Rival Universities. Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 1(5). Retrieved October 5, 2015, from

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