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Sports PR: Staying Ahead of the Message

Published on October 19, 2016, at 4:10 p.m.
by Mary Catherine Molay

In the world of sports, messaging can change in an instant. Technology is one of the greatest assets available to the public relations industry, but it can also be one of the most challenging.

Professionals in the sports arena have to deal with this challenge on a constant basis. Whether it’s a player, coach or member of the staff, everyone has to be prepared to face anything that comes their way.

Herb Vincent, associate commissioner of communications for the Southeastern Conference, started his career at the age of 18 while enrolled at Louisiana State University. At LSU, he was a student assistant for sports information. Vincent believes that the news cycle has changed in many ways since his first job at LSU.

“There wasn’t a sense of urgency or an around the clock news cycle that there is now,” Vincent said. “There used to be a lot more time spent on accuracy and ensuring that you had reliable sources for a story. It’s changed a lot.”

Since the SEC is home to 14 other Division I universities — most of which are household names — work must be done from the office level as well as the university level to control messaging.

Roots Woodruff, associate director of communications at The University of Alabama Athletics Department, has been working with student-athletes for over 26 years. During his time, he has developed a technique to help prepare athletes to work with the media.

Photo by the White House News Release
Photo courtesy of White House News Release

“One of the things that I like to work with my athletes and coaches on is any interview that you go into, have three things on your mind that you want to talk about,” Woodruff stated. “That way, no matter how the interview goes, you can pivot to those things that you’re prepared to talk about. You can fall back on those things.”

Woodruff noted that while working with the media, it is important that the student-athletes themselves are able to shine in the best light possible. In an instant, the spotlight can go from good to bad. It’s always best to be prepared no matter what the situation may be.

“Whether it’s an interview, what [the student-athlete] is saying on Twitter, or what they’re saying in a group, if they’re saying it to more than themselves in a mirror, it’s public record,” Woodruff explained.

Prepping athletes for interviews is one way to help our messaging. When working with the media, not only are PR practitioners challenged with advising their clients on what to say, but they are also challenged with making sure that the information reported is reported as said.

“It’s not a matter of controlling a message as it is making sure that accurate information is being disseminated,” Vincent said. “It is more difficult if someone disseminates inaccurate information because of the immediacy of social media.”

Although Vincent explained how the media does a great job with reporting, he also noted that there are times when the message can be misconstrued if it’s not monitored for accuracy.

“Everybody in life makes a mistake at one point or another,” Woodruff said. “It just so happens that athletes are far more under the microscope than most people.”

This reality can also be a reminder for public relations practitioners. It is important to remember that companies can be monitored to the same extent that athletes are monitored. Because of the 24-hour news cycle, the SEC has decided to take on extra measures to secure its messaging.

Photo by
Photo by

The SEC Video Center, located in the conference’s corporate office in Birmingham, Alabama, implemented collaborative replay review in August as an officiating function. However, on the communications end, it has been used for several years to monitor social media. Vincent explained that each weekend there is someone present at all times watching games from start to finish.

“As we are watching those games, we are also monitoring social media,” Vincent said. “Because sometimes you can find out something going on at an event or some reaction to an event that we need to know about.”

This serves as a perfect example of collaborative communication. Social media can help professionals get into “the know” about what is going on. That way, they can try to correct an issue in advance, rather than having it continue to be misconstrued by outside audiences. Ultimately, the SEC Video Center can help to deal with situations quicker.

“We can acknowledge [the issue] and put it to bed at the time instead of cycling through 24-48 hours worth of news,” Vincent said. “If we see negative information out there, sometimes we will act on our own to correct it and get it into as many hands as possible in trying to make sure it’s accurate.”

As PR practitioners, we need to ensure that we can hold whomever we represent in the best light. The SEC as a whole demonstrates how communicators can better work together to make a message accurate and get ahead of negative stories before they hit the never-sleeping news cycle.

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