When University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon went before a crowd on Friday and explained how the athletic department had hired a media relations firm to teach their student athletes a lesson by “catfishing” some of them online, he probably didn’t think through the ramifications of how this type of social media training might be perceived by the public.
Later that same afternoon, associate athletic director Dave Ablauf issued a statement clarifying his boss’ remarks. Ablauf, who is head of the department’s media relations, talked about the original intent of hiring the PR firm to catfish the student athletes.
“We use it as an educational process,” Ablauf said. “It wasn’t catfishing. It’s being misconstrued. They didn’t go to that extent (like Te’o's situation). There was no interaction like a catfish. They weren’t going down that path. This wasn’t us trying to trick anyone.”
Earlier in the day, it was revealed by various news stories that members of a media relations firm used an attractive female staffer to go online and try to forge relationships with some of the Michigan athletes. Later, at a team meeting, some of their interactions (and the female media staffer) were revealed. Using a person, real or imaginary, to try and forge a fake relationship online looks like trickery to the public. However, the University of Michigan isn’t the only school to use this unorthodox method of training athletes to use social media. The effect of online fishing to educate is common among large university athletic departments, especially football programs.
Brandon mentioned that some of the athletes’ responses to the woman online were inappropriate. But wasn’t that the intent of the exercise—to create a situation where student-athletes would be tempted to act inappropriately? Are the student-athletes to blame for their solicited responses? Or is this just an exercise that the unknowing public might view as a breach of privacy? Normally, with a little digging, a media relations firm could probably find some genuine examples of Michigan student-athletes acting inappropriately on Twitter to use in their training. It’s understandable that the public finds something disturbing about this “method” of social media training. But often, the real threat of a social media crisis calls for training methods that teach a more shocking lesson.
There were no details given about the rest of the training Michigan used so it is inappropriate to make a judgment on their whole process. However,the practice of teaching by shame and humiliation should only be part the equation, if used at all. The story is a sign of our troubled times. The mix of celebrity and immaturity in young athletes can be a recipe for disaster.
Some athletic departments are panicking, and they needn’t be. There are many firms out there, including ours, that have a program that teaches student-athletes how to develop a personal brand on social media and protect their privacy.
Many schools are taking a proactive path in educating their athletes how to develop a personal brand. The University of Washington‘s Preferred Athlete program trains interested student-athletes to be ambassadors on behalf of the school, equipping them with a branded avatar and promotional opportunities.
We encourage schools to contact us for help in finding the best way to train student-athletes to be responsible with social media. It’s not just about the brand of the school, it’s about teaching young people how to build their own reputation. Contact us today. (story updated 2/8/13)