It’s not often that you sit next to a guy who helped run the crisis communication efforts for one of the largest–if not the largest–scandals in NCAA history.
Or that you get to sit next to him on a panel at a major academic conference.
Or that the point of the panel was to talk about public relations in professional and collegiate sport.
Last weekend I attended the 2013 AEJMC conference in Washington, D.C. in part to discuss sport PR on an invited panel*, “The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly.” Although my interest in and familiarity with the Sandusky scandal seemingly made me the prime discussant for the “very, very ugly” part of the panel, I was excited to hear what other participants would have to say about sport PR. Panel guests included Natalie Brown (University of Alabama), Danielle Coombs (Kent State University), Shawn McBride (Ketchum Sports & Entertainment), and Dan Steinberg (Washington Post).
While much of the crowd-generated discussion focused on the Sandusky scandal, themes emerged across the good, bad, and (very, very) ugly aspects of sport PR. Each panelist highlighted fan involvement and each example showcased the visibility of sports. Primarily, discussions revealed the importance of understanding the changing dynamics of sport PR.
Somewhat obviously, fans were viewed as a primary stakeholder group that drives sport culture and impacts PR efforts. Social media has increased our ability to interact with fans while enhancing opportunities for them to connect with teams and athletes. Fans can seemingly voice their opinions more loudly than in the past, but they also have new opportunities to connect with one another (as with the candlelight vigil and Blue Out at Penn State).
Visibility is also central to sport PR as it can present both threats and opportunities for organizations. Sport entities are tracked 24-7, and players are acting as organizational spokespeople in new ways. The 24-hour news cycle also means we expect (fairly or not) instant and constant communication from organizations. Additionally—and somewhat less discussed—this visibility creates fantastic opportunities for teams and partner organizations. When a team like Aston Villa passes up sponsorship opportunities to promote a local children’s hospice on their shirts, the generated awareness and support generated is almost immeasurable.
But what the panel really highlighted was how quickly sport PR is changing—from year to year and event to event. This is not new news, I know, but sitting next to someone who did crisis communication for Penn State made me sharply consider how heavily my work relies on theory, observation and best judgments. Although I am confident in my work, I also realized I was sitting next to a person who could easily say, “Well, that’s not actually how it happened.”
To me, the discussions highlighted that bridging the gap between scholarship and practice is dependent on appreciating the changing, dynamic environments in which practitioners work. It’s only been a few years since I worked for a team, but I know plenty has changed regarding who gets press passes and how the team communicates (holy Twitter account, Batman!). These dynamics require us, as academics, to appreciate how sport PR operates in the 24-hour news cycle while constantly interacting with invested stakeholder groups. Teams must be increasingly aware of how their players are using social media—something we certainly didn’t consider a few years ago. Sport PR people also have to embrace the idea that the industry’s visibility makes it a lightning rod for both praise and criticism (arguably, mostly criticism). And, as in other industries, communication decisions may be dictated in part by lawyers, trustees and other groups.
Essentially, talking with McBride confirmed that my judgments about how the Sandusky scandal unfolded—from a communications perspective—are on the mark. But it also highlighted that academic models must consider how each situation has its own dynamics and layers. Ultimately, that’s the main reason I was thankful for the opportunity to flat out ask McBride whether I’m “getting it.”
*My understanding is that a recording of the panel will be available soon. I look forward to sharing it!