Social media training for athletes sparks media frenzy

Last week, the University of Michigan faced a PR crisis after reports said it was allegedly ‘catfishing’ student-athletes as part of a training exercise. Not true, say officials. 


Last week, the University of Michigan was at the center of a brief but intense media frenzy after Athletic Director Dave Brandon told an audience at a conference in Toledo, Ohio, about the way Michigan trains its student-athletes in social media.

Male and female employees of Florida-based firm 180 Communications—which the university hires—send the athletes a friend or follower request on Facebook or Twitter. Later, the firm reveals to the athletes what it found on their pages.

The reveal often leaves the students in stunned silence.

“We’re trying to educate them” on the dangers of social media, said Lee Gordon, director of corporate communications at 180 Communications.

When Brandon told attendees of the KeyBank Global Leaders Forum on Friday about the training, a blogger from ElevenWarriors.com, who was live tweeting the speech, fired off five tweets on the topic, beginning with:

The tweet unleashed a wave of media reports that Michigan “catfished” its players.

The blogger behind the tweet wrote a post titled: “Yes, the University of Michigan most certainly catfished its own players.”

ESPN chimed in with a report that said:

“Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Friday that the athletic department had a fake online persona befriend players to teach them a lesson on the dangers of online relationships for athletes in the public eye.”

“Catfishing” is when someone pretends on social media to be someone they’re not.

Last month, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o said he was the victim of an online hoax—which Notre Dame called a “catfishing” scheme—after the sports blog Deadspin revealed that the woman Te’o had claimed to date before she died of leukemia was not a real person. The incident created a PR mess for Notre Dame.

Lee Gordon said the University of Michigan was not “catfishing” its athletes.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he told PR Daily on Tuesday. “We’re real. [Catfishing is] someone faking an identity. When we Facebook them, they see me; they see pictures of my wife and kids.”

He added: “The men and women who work for us (some of whom are interns) use their own real profiles to do the social media research.”

Brad Phillips, a media trainer who has not worked with 180 Communications, said this type of training “sounds like a powerful way to teach a critically important lesson.”

“As long as the company isn’t deceiving their trainees or sharing the information they learn publicly (or using it to humiliate their trainees during a social media training class), the term ‘catfishing’ seems totally misplaced,” said Phillips, who is a frequent contributor to PR Daily.

How the story exploded

Gordon said the story got so much attention because of “that word.” (He didn’t actually say “catfishing” during the interview.)

“Just by putting that one word in there [the story] exploded,” he said.

Athletic Department officials at Michigan said they were inundated with calls from the press on Friday—a call about every five seconds, according to Gordon.

On Friday afternoon, Dave Ablauf, who is head of the athletic department’s media relations, spoke with the Detroit News to clarify Brandon’s remarks. He echoed much of what Gordon told PR Daily, insisting the practice isn’t “catfishing.”

“It’s being misconstrued,” Ablauf told the Detroit News. “This wasn’t us trying to trick anyone.”

NFL scouts are doing it

According to Gordon, 180 Communications has conducted this training for the University of Michigan since 2011. He said the firm makes two trips a year to the school for the training. The firm works with at least 15 other universities, as well as professional teams, among them the Buffalo Bills and baseball’s Atlanta Braves.

“NFL scouts are doing this already,” said Gordon of the social media audit.

When 180 conducts this training in which it follows or friends athletes online, the firm presents the information in a small group setting. At the end of the training, Gordon urges the athletes to unfriend him and anyone else from the firm.

“We’re not here to embarrass [the players] in front of their peers,” Gordon stressed.

The training is meant to show athletes what’s already out there—information that journalists are surely looking for. Gordon should know. He’s a veteran journalist, having spent years reporting on sports in Florida before jumping to PR. He still writes the occasional magazine piece and hosts a weekly show on ESPN radio.

Goal is not to humiliate

At least one public relations professional, who formerly worked at a university and provides media training for student athletes, criticized 180’s brand of training.

“The practice of teaching by shame and humiliation should only be part the equation, if used at all,” Chris Syme, principal of crisis communications agency CKSyme.org, wrote in a blog post. “Using trickery and humiliation may produce short-term success, but it will not produce a lasting understanding of how to use social media to build a positive personal brand.”

Gordon, who stressed 180 isn’t presenting this information in a way to shame or humiliate the athletes, said the purpose of the training is to let athletes know what’s out there so they can empower themselves.

“We tell them, ‘You’re the CEO of your own brand,’ and explain what that means.”

He added: “Our goal is not to humiliate them.”

In a blog post published Tuesday on the University of Michigan’s athletics website, the school’s athletic director defended the work of 180 Communications.

“All young people go through this stage, but our athletic department has a specific task,” Dave Brandon wrote. “We have a guiding principle to create a positive academic and athletic experience for our student-athletes and prepare them to be successful in life.”

“We work to educate all our student-athletes on all fronts. Social media is just one aspect of this education.”

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