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Get in the Game: Social Media, School and Athletics

Originally Posted on Author's Blog

Oh, the beautiful chaos of college athletics!

From financial windfalls and glory on the national stage to gut-wrenching losses and the death throws of a struggling team – the swing of the pendulum is mighty and swift.

There is a lot at stake within an athletics department. For better or worse, at large Division I programs, the health (or at the very least, the agility) of the entire academic institution is often intertwined with W/L records. Studies released by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicate that even one college football win impacts donations, admissions and general measures of reputation.

The pressure and turmoil are particularly evident as athletic departments implement or revise policies supporting social media efforts and emerging technology. Later this week, we’ll break down a few examples and do some industry forecasting — but for the most part, these are complex issues that we like to look at on case-by-case basis.

Speaking generally, the rules of the game are constantly shifting, so it’s imperative that we understand the players.

The University

The University’s multivariate role in athletics is an entire blog in-and-of itself. But when we talk about the University “brand” or identity, nowhere is that more widely displayed than in the limelight of big-time athletic program. The athletics program can set the pace for the rest of the school.

Sports are rallying and morale building entertainment. They are emotional endeavors for players and fans. And as we know, emotionally driven decisions – whether you are deciding where to play or where to write a check – promote (favorable) levels of commitment.

Bottom line: social media provides some of the absolute best channels for your organization to connect, offering 1-to-1 and 1-to-many communication at the same time.

Sure, there are significant risks involved but, at this point, you have to want to be in the game. If not, you better get used to playing second or third string.

Ultimately, strategy (and this is true for any department) comes down to University culture.

Doug Meffley, the athletic department director of digital and social communications for Northwestern University explains his school of thought: “Northwestern is on the cutting edge of social media because we’re on the cutting edge of a lot of things… it’s that mindset that we have as an university and an athletic department specifically, that we need to be in front of the curve because that’s how we’re going to succeed.”

Athletes & Coaches

When we talk about social media risk within an athletics program, the athletes are wildcards.

Social media policies involving student athletes pose a formidable challenge to athletic directors. Considerations include: the University brand, NCAA compliance, First Amendment rights and the (understandable) immaturity of those at the center of it all.

There are plenty of examples out there, from Ohio State’s Cardale Jones tweeting that classes are pointless for a college football player to University of Michigan student-athletes inadvertently landing secondary violations for tweeting a recruit. In both cases, the University’s athletic department took the brunt of the heat, issuing apologies and dancing between several different vested interests.

And let’s not forget the coaches: hot-tempers and just plain stupid mistakes on the recruiting trail seem to plague the industry.

When it comes to mitigating these risks, the following tactics are currently being explored:

  • Implementing very clear social media guidelines for student-athletes
  • Hiring outside parties for social media training
  • Creating an emergency response plan that touches on message removal, apologies, follow-up / formal statements and the different levels of authoritative involvement.
  • Considering technology that helps monitor and head-off trouble. The caveat being, platforms like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor require all parties to opt-in for surveillance — there is a definite “Big Brother” element that seems to run contrary to the underpinnings of higher education and the values of the NCAA.

The NCAA

It would appear that Facebook and Twitter are both a blessing and a curse for the NCAA: recruiting violations are easier to spot and corroborate, but inconsistencies in NCAA policy are much more glaring too.

Last month, the NCAA issued a new piece of legislation concerning Instagram. The policy obviously gives legitimacy and power to social media, but it also shows just how tough these platforms are to navigate – even for governing bodies.

In this case, altering a photo using an Instagram filter for recruiting is an NCAA violation. Nevermind that, at last check, these filters are the whole point of Instagram; but the NCAA still felt the need to clarify that they are not banning Instagram.

When this sort of double-speak is hanging over your head, it is no wonder athletic departments are skittish about social media! A smart, savvy communications and marketing team – one that really understands the ever-changing landscape of social and mobile technology – is absolutely critical.

Big Business

Branded apps and sponsored social media challenges are becoming commonplace in the world of college athletics, but there is a definite downside when a third party’s brand identity is lashed to something as volatile and unpredictable as sports.

For all involved, there is a lot to gain ($) and an awful lot to lose (reputation).

In each instance where these interests intersect (for instance, on a Facebook comments thread or in the ratings section in iTunes), it’s good practice to have very clear guidelines regarding which entity owns the process and how to respond.

The Press

Not so long ago, reporters received information and it went into an article. Extraneous information was edited out.

These days, those articles are still going out but reporters are also re-tweeting just about anything of interest that comes across their desk. Recognizing that these systems are much faster than the AP and in line with the communication demands of the public, reporters use Twitter as a sort of modern “beat call”.

For athletic departments, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are incredible amplifiers. Promo videos and television spots and press releases are blunt instruments but, couple these techniques with social media and suddenly you know exactly who is watching and how these spots will play with the press.

What’s more, in critical situations, a savvy communications professional understands how to run damage control and use these platforms to indicate what may not be communicated (for whatever reason) from the top of the organization.

In other words, a good understanding of social helps departments conduct their own press and, to a large degree, control the message. The AD’s dream.

Fans

Last but certainly not least, the fan. What makes a fan, a fan?

They are passionate. Vocal. Maybe a little crazy. All of these things make for FANTASTIC levels of engagement on social media – but very little control. Athletic departments can’t control fans. And lest we forget: for every fan, there is a hater.

Just know it. And then own it.

The only thing athletic departments can truly control is how they respond; but this can shape the response mechanism of the group as a whole.

If you want an environment around your program that includes trust, even-keeled support and high standards, then your department’s interaction on social media should reflect those priorities.

  • Be open, honest and as transparent as possible
  • Ask your fans for support and help dealing with negativity within the community

If you want an environment around your program that screams pure passion, your department should be prepared to push the envelope.

  • Be cheeky and entertaining
  • Give your fans something memorable
  • And get prepared to deal with negativity in a way that is respectful (and within guidelines), but still fun

Athletic Departments: it’s time to man up. If you want to win this field position battle, you need to start recruiting leaders and communications / marketing talent that understand social and mobile media.

Short term: you can always scout the pros.

College Football

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Author: Meredith Singer is Head of Ops & Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.

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