Mention student-athletes on social media and you may find many athletic communicators reaching for the Pepto Bismol. The speed of social media and the bravado of today’s student-athlete can render a severe blow to the reputation of a university brand with the click of a mouse. Universities are struggling with how to provide social media training for student athletes. Even though Cardale Jones, the author of the below tweet, was a third string quarterback on the Ohio State football team, his errant fingers pummeled an already-battered football program’s reputation at one of the nation’s largest universities. If athletics is the front porch of a university, how can the athletic department help protect the its brand?
In the fall of 2012, CoSIDA sent out a membership survey on the subject of social media training for student athletes with a focus on training methods and department policies. Some findings were distressing, but not surprising. Among the results:
- The majority of athletic departments (almost 56%) do not provide training for student-athletes in the use of social media. [click to tweet right here, right now]
- The majority of the training modules from respondents consisted of dos and do nots, with no particular attention to compliance issues or brand protection.
- 57 of the responding athletics communicators (5%) said they have teams that are not allowed to use social media. The majority of these respondents were BCS schools.
- A little over half (55%) monitor their student-athletes on social media and the vast majority of the monitoring is being done by sports information directors and coaches.
- Almost 70% do not have a social media policy for student-athletes.
- Only 22% of schools provide social media training for coaches.
- Over 50% have had to remove a social media post from a coach or student-athlete in the last 12 months—11% had done it ten or more times.
The fact that the majority of schools do not provide training for student-athletes in the use of social media is a red flag. Ignoring the power of social media in the hands of student-athletes is a risk. Using it might bring great rewards. Based on the survey research, schools might consider the following four “Be’s”.
When it comes to social media, you can’t hide your light under a bushel. A breaking news story can send you scrambling, even if you’ve got a plan. On February 15, 2012, news broke that a group of 17 students at Texas Christian University had been arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs. Four football players were among the 17. One of the players told police that a majority of football players had failed a mandatory drug test ordered by the head coach earlier in the month. The school had their hands full.
Almost immediately, the athletic department took to the social media airwaves announcing a press conference at 9:30 a.m. and promising live tweets during the event. Director of Athletics Chris Conte and head football coach Gary Patterson were praised by the public for taking immediate action and making strong statements that included expressions of shame and anger along with implementing swift public consequences.
Tracy Syler-Jones, TCU’s Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications maintains a proactive stance on the power of social media. “Like it or not, we all live in glass houses nowadays thanks to social media. But because student-athletes have a much higher profile, their pictures or comments can have tremendous repercussions for a university, its athletic program as well as the individual student-athlete.”
Administrators often default to the “we hope it will go away soon” school of thought while a social media crisis spins out of control. Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of TVP Communications in Denver, specializes in crisis management for higher education. She says a proactive and flexible crisis plan is a must for all athletic departments.
Parrot said in her experience institutions with a proactive crisis plan weathered their internal and external storms much better for many reasons:
- Advanced crisis planning allows you to take stock of your audiences, resources, response strategies, and spokespeople without the pressure of deadlines or the duress of a real-time crisis.
- Sharing a crisis plan before a crisis hits means those with strong emotions or convictions will know what their role is and isn’t during a crisis.
- A crisis plan will include trigger points or thresholds for engaging with audiences via social media that will guide and protect social media account managers from making poor decisions by following a triage plan for responses.
Be a Community
Campus collaboration can be a key to success, especially when it comes to managing brand reputation. Syler-Jones describes several ways that TCU insures that the campus communications department and athletics are on the same page.
“Athletics has its own marketing and communications staff, but our efforts are coordinated through TCU’s director of communications, who acts as a liaison with Athletics. TCU’s situation is unique,” she said, “in that one of our social media specialists is a dual report between athletics and the university, which allows us to quickly and easily manage crisis messages across athletics’ social media platforms.”
TCU also has a campus wide marketing task force that helps build and maintain better relationships with all campus entities. Through all these channels, athletics is more a part of the total campus community.
Parrot also echoed the dangers of separating athletics from the campus fabric.
“I’ve been approached by leaders who are trying to distance their institutions from athletics-based crises. That approach would make Don Quixote proud – it is an impossible dream to remove the responsibility for athletics from institutional leaders’ purview. Athletics departments deserve support when times are good and bad. And it is naïve to think that crisis repercussions, including firings, are isolated to the field or court.
Be an Educator First, Policeman Second
The University of Washington understands the power of high profile student-athletes on social media. According to Daniel Hour, Manager of New Media and Recruiting Services for UW Athletics, the Huskies have a student-athlete social media policy that stresses best practices and rewards athletes who excel on social channels with a preferred status and Twitter hashtag.
“#FeaturedAthletes is a UW-specific program that rewards social media savvy student-athletes with a custom twitcon, custom background, and heavy promotion from @UWAthletics online and in-game,” he said. “This benefits UW because it allows an administrator like myself, to come in to a student-athlete meeting with something to actually offer the athlete, instead of a 30-minute lecture on what not to do. In turn, they actually listen and respond.”
Hour said the program was an alternative to what UW saw a lot of other schools doing—just giving students a list of dos and do nots, or prohibiting them from going on Twitter at all. It was their belief that social media, when used properly, could be an advantage in recruiting, marketing, team chemistry, and the student-athlete’s personal brand.
Hour says he also speaks to the athletes on a team-by-team basis and shows them actual examples of how athletes have lost reputations, endorsement deals, been kicked out of the Olympics, and other assorted downsides of acting irresponsibly on social media.
“We are here to educate, and we understand that 18 to 22 year olds will make mistakes. It’s our job to educate them so that they are able to learn from those mistakes,” he said.
Do you have a crisis communications plan that includes social media? According to a membership survey on crisis communications done by CoSIDA in the fall of 2011, just a little over half (56%) of the responding athletic departments had a crisis communications plan. Over half those with a plan do not have contingencies for using social media within that plan.
When it comes to preparation for a crisis event, Parrot sees several common mistakes that institutions make.
“The most common mistakes I see include not developing a plan; not providing talking points to frontline communicators like receptionists, fundraisers, or staff; not specifically planning for social media use; not building good relationships with media in advance; and not learning from others’ mistakes.”
The CoSIDA research in 2011 also produced five takeaways that institutions should put in place now to be prepared for a crisis, specifically one amplified in social media:
- Implement a monitoring system to follow conversations about the brand and see early warning signs.
- Develop and implement a social media policy campus wide.
- Use a social media management system (SMMS) to post and monitor social media accounts.
- Establish registration or affiliation of campus social media accounts
- Establish a community manager for campus social media.
Many athletic departments are outsourcing the monitoring of student-athletes on social media. Currently, some companies are providing controversial proprietary software that requires installation on a student-athlete’s personal computer by “friending” of an application. As a word of caution, some states have outlawed this practice and several states have pending bills to do the same. In addition, the federal government is considering a new version of the failed SNOPA bill that would also outlaw the practice of forced monitoring on social media.
Schools are encouraged to proceed with caution and bring campus counsel into the loop before employing an outside company to monitor student-athletes on social media.
(The research from the Fall 2012 CoSIDA membership survey also appears in the current issue of the Council for Advancement of Education’s monthly magazine, CASE Currents and on the cosida.com website)