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It’s difficult to anticipate when something small unexpectedly soars into much more than was anticipated. This was the case when a fourth grade boy from Florida was given the opportunity to celebrate the University of Tennessee Vols on college color day at his school. Because he didn’t own a University of Tennessee t-shirt, he hand-drew a U of T logo on paper and pinned the design to an orange t-shirt he already owned. Simple. Easy. Genius!

Wearing his custom design and U of T orange, he went to school where he was openly ridiculed by some school mates. Shattered by the bullying, he returned to his class and teacher Laura Snyder, who attempted to rectify the issue. Ms. Snyder immediately took to social media, posting a photo of the student’s custom shirt on her Facebook page, asking if anyone had contacts at the university who may be able to help procure a t-shirt for the student.

When the University of Tennessee (U of T) learned of the bullying episode, it sent not just a t-shirt, but an entire box of gear and gifts bearing the university logo to the boy’s school. The university then took things a few steps further by offering replicas of the fourth grader’s custom t-shirt design for sale through its online campus store, with proceeds from shirt sales going directly to STOMP Out Bullying. More than 50,000 t-shirts have been pre-ordered, yet the viral wave didn’t stop there.

The University of Tennessee instead became the epicenter of its own viral public relations triumph by following a few very basic rules:

  • Actively “listen” to your social channels. Pay attention to what is being said, shared, posted and linked through your social channels. Whether reviews or comments from customers, requests for support or compliments, “listening” to your social channels is critical in this digitally-driven era. Social media channels are not “set it and forget it.” They are meant for engagement and response. By simply paying attention, U of T transformed active social listening into action.
  • Respond in an authentic and thoughtful manner. Upon seeing Ms. Snyder’s request, U of T could have simply fulfilled her request for a t-shirt. But they didn’t. They instead sent a full box of goodies to showcase how enamored they were with the boy’s efforts to support U of T from a distance. They also recognized that he both embodied and modeled U of T spirit, resulting in admission and a four-year scholarship to the class of 2028 should he wish to accept.
  • Authentically extend goodwill. U of T could have monopolized the limelight yet it instead leveraged the opportunity to extend impact. By replicating the student’s design on t-shirts sold through the university’s online store (with proceeds for the sale of that shirt going directly to an organization designed to eliminate bullying) U of T orange will ultimately appear on the backs of supporters across the nation, thus extending school/brand recognition.

Well played, U of T. A perfect example of making lemonade out of lemons.

To learn more about social listening and how it can be used to impact your public relations efforts, contact CGPR to arrange a coffee with us!

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