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Media training aims at producing scandal-free athletes

You have probably heard of Reade Seligmann. You probably haven’t heard of Matt Ward.

You might have seen the photos of the Northwestern women’s soccer team’s hazing rituals. You probably didn’t catch the Wildcats’ overtime win against Oakland.

You’re not alone. For every person who heard about the events surrounding the Duke lacrosse team’s party or saw the various hazing photos posted on the Web site, only a fraction witnessed those same players in action on the field. Although Ward led Virginia to a national title and is the reigning male lacrosse player of the year, Seligmann, one of the three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, has received countless more hours of press because of what occurred off the field on March 13.

Incidents like these cost universities millions of dollars in alumni donations, hurt admissions and recruiting, and tarnish an image that decades were spent building. To combat negative incidents, or to ensure it doesn’t happen at their school, an increasing number of athletic directors are employing sports media trainers to educate their staffs, coaches and athletes about the pitfalls and advantages of life in the limelight.

Student-athletes behaving badly is nothing new. The advent of social networking sites that allow people to post pictures, videos and information about themselves to a worldwide community — sites like MySpace and Facebook — have put the private lives of students-athletes in the public domain. Digital cameras and cell phones with picture and video capability allow the public to catch athletes in private moments, whether in a dorm or at a bar, and easily share those pictures with the rest of the world.

It’s a whole new world for coaches and athletic department staffs who previously only worried about what sports reporters had to say. The popularity of fan-generated content, which reports every rumor — accurate or not — is a beast few collegiate programs are equipped to handle.

Enter sports media trainers, a relatively new trend in the collegiate public relations landscape. These specialists work with athletic departments to determine how they would like their schools to be viewed in the press. They also work with coaches and players to make sure they best represent the school’s desired image.

“People who are really into doing what needs to be done to protect the image of their school understand that is doesn’t matter if it’s a juco kid who got into a fight in a town bar, or it’s Duke’s J.J. Redick making a U-turn and getting stopped by the police — it is going to have an impact on the way the community views your school,” explained Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training. “Twenty people probably did the same thing as [Redick], but he’s the only one who got reported on. It was a great lesson for other student-athletes.”

Long says regional sports television, an increasing number of cable stations dedicated to showing college sports and the live streaming of Division I, II, and III games on the Internet have allowed fans of nearly every school to watch their team in action, even if they live hundreds of miles away. Because of this increased exposure, sports are playing a larger role in the identity of smaller, obscure colleges.

“Media training is something every school is going to need to do,” said Long, who has worked with Purdue, Colorado State, the Coast Guard Academy, Arkansas and George Mason, among others. “The reputations of the chancellor, provost, president and everyone at the university are on the line every time these teams are on the air. They have 18- to 21-year-old kids with no formal training representing their livelihood, their school, and their fund-raising efforts.”

Big-time college sports are big businesses, and managing the school’s image and reputation is vital when millions of dollars and prized recruits are on the line.

“Sports media training is a staple of most of the best programs,” said Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, one of the first media training companies to work specifically with athletes. “But it has clearly trickled down to midtier and smaller programs as well. Just recently, I worked with Rice’s football team and New Mexico’s basketball coaches. I’ve worked with most of the sports teams at Stanford and a lot of schools where football and basketball aren’t the biggest sports.”

John Heisler, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director for media and broadcast relations, believes the exposure that the lacrosse and hazing scandals received sent a strong warning.

“I don’t think there was a student-athlete in the country that wasn’t aware of how much exposure those situations received,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference what the sport is — it was a lesson for everyone in today’s media culture.”

Hessert teaches her clients the three components of success today: performance, image and exposure. Universities are pouring millions of dollars into coaches to ensure that performance is up to par, but have only recently realized the importance of investing in image and exposure. To effectively manage a school’s reputation, athletic directors need to know what both traditional media and new media — fan-generated sites, blogs, etc. — have to say about their brand.

An ounce of prevention
“Getting blown out in a basketball game is a lot like rape. If it’s inevitable, you may as well sit back and enjoy it.” — Bobby Knight

You never know what someone is going to say. But you can guess what reporters might ask.

The basic tenets of sports media training are preparation and awareness. Before starting MVP, Long worked on Capitol Hill with members of Congress, U.S. and foreign officials for more than 10 years. Although the issues in sports and politics are different, the principles of dealing with the media and protecting an image are the same.

Long simplifies the lesson for his clients: If your mother wouldn’t approve, don’t do it.

“We try to teach them the things you need to look out for and avoid, and to stop and think before you go into an interview. We practice avoiding bad situations and avoiding crutch phrases,” Long explained.

Many media training services use mock interviews to prepare athletes for the questions they’ll face from the press. Some services, like MVP, video tape the interviews to provide instant analysis for their clients and provide the tapes to the school to reinforce the lessons.

“After the first day of practice, you don’t go and play Duke,” Long said. “The same thing goes for doing interviews. The more you do, the better you get at it. Knowing how to react in tough situations is a great skill to have.”

Both the athletic directors and media experts agree that the point isn’t to make the athletes into media-savvy robots, but to make them more careful and more comfortable in front of the camera, allowing their personality to come through.

“Dealing with the media can be a positive experience,” said Heisler. “We try to get the kids to have fun with it.”

Getting through to 18- to 21-year-olds can be a challenge, but both Long and Hessert say their clients are responsive to the training. Of course, both bring instant credibility to the table; among Hessert’s many clients is NFL MVP Peyton Manning, who first began working with Hessert while he was at Tennessee.

“The NBA has done a great service to all of college athletics, in terms of overall media training, by mandating a dress code and media training for everyone,” Hessert said. “Now I can go into a room of college athletes and say, ‘Guys, a few months ago, I was standing in front of Dwyane Wade and Shaq doing this — and they’ve been living with the media a whole lot longer.'”

Paul Krebs, the former athletic director at Bowling Green and current New Mexico AD, has employed Sports Media Challenge at both schools, for different reasons.

“At Bowling Green, we knew [quarterback] Omar Jacobs was going to receive an incredible amount of publicity as a Heisman hopeful. We wanted to put him in the best light possible, and we had not had that kind of media attention before. We also had a lot of first-time head coaches who knew their X’s and O’s, but didn’t have a lot of experience with the media,” Krebs said.

While Hessert’s team focused on the coaches and high-profile players at Bowling Green, they’ve undertaken brand management at Krebs’ new post.

“At New Mexico, we’re the story in the marketplace in terms of sports; the bulk of the media attention is focused on Lobo athletics,” he explained. “I wanted to make sure our staff and coaches were ready for that media scrutiny and had positioned ourselves in the best possible light.”

Many schools approach sports media training from a life skills perspective.

Notre Dame, which was one of the first schools in the country to employ sports media training in 1988, now offers the service to all of its athletes as part of a life skills initiative.

“The approach we’ve tried to take is that we have 700 student-athletes, not all of whom are going to receive dozens of interview requests,” Heisler said. “This training, however, translates very well to anyone who has to make a presentation for class or in a business setting. Interpersonal skills go a long way.”

At Stanford, where Sports Media Challenge works with both revenue- and nonrevenue-generating programs alike, Hessert says the approach is the same: to build “communication champions.”

“We teach everyone that as student-athletes, every time you open your mouth, what you do or don’t do represents the school,” she said.

Hessert takes it a step further, too. She teaches her clients about the ripple effect — where one negative action affects a player’s family, school, future employment — as a way of driving home the point. The opposite can be true as well. After George Mason’s unlikely run to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament, experts estimated that the publicity the school received was equivalent to a $50 million marketing campaign.

Long began working with the team long before Selection Sunday, and saw the results of the training pay off for the Patriots in spades. In fact, a number of the questions he had peppered the players with were asked by the media during the team’s unlikely run. Long’s teachings — being humble in victory, gracious in defeat and using the spotlight to talk about the team and the university — went a long way toward proving that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The cost of employing outside media trainers is something not every university can afford for every team. Heisler points out that there are many ways to get the information into coaches’ and athletes’ hands. At Notre Dame, Heisler and his staff produce a brochure on dealing with the media, which includes the names and jobs of local and national reporters, as well as tips for student-athletes. Cost-effective measures like these are one way smaller schools can teach their athletes about working with the media.

Managing nontraditional media

When Hessert begins a presentation, she often asks the student-athletes in the room to raise their hands if they’ve ever posted anything to a social-networking site like MySpace or YouTube. According to her estimate, about 90 percent of those in the room raise their hands.

“And the 10 percent who didn’t are probably just lazy,” Hessert joked. “The younger generation has a different sense of privacy. It’s like there’s no need for it — and that’s fine, as long as they are accountable.”

Fan blogs, MySpace profiles and YouTube postings provide both a boon and bane for administrators. Some schools have banned athletes from posting information on these sites or have put restrictions on who can view the profiles.

“It’s a losing battle to ban MySpace,” Hessert said. “Social networking sites are not a fad, and administrators need to acknowledge that. They need to teach accountability.”

While the pitfalls of these sites are apparent, the positive opportunities these sites present are just beginning to be realized.

“There is real concern about the implication of these sites, but at the same time, appreciation for word-of-mouth marketing,” Hessert said. “These sites can create advocates and evangelists of their brand.”

It has taken years of convincing — not to mention more than a few scandals — for athletic directors to see the power behind nontraditional sites.

“About five years ago, I was giving a crisis management program at an AD conference, and I was talking about the impact of these sites on sports entities,” Hessert said. “A few people asked me, ‘Why should we pay attention to this? They don’t know the facts.’ They’re talking about your brand — right or wrong — and it’s affecting how people view your brand.”

Hessert likens fan and social-networking sites to buying a new car. Before making a major purchase, you research online and talk to friends about their experiences. People make decisions about schools in much the same way, and what is said on the Internet could affect admissions, recruiting, alumni donations and potential new hirings, among others.

Sports Media Challenge now offers Buzz Manager, which allows administrators to keep tabs on what the traditional and nontraditional media are saying about their brands. The company believes the tool will not only help schools communicate directly with their fan bases, it will also provide unfiltered data to aid in marketing.

Buzz Manager is a tool in crisis management which monitors sites and sends up red flags at the first sign of rumors, such as recruiting violations or the status of a coach’s job. The schools can then decide their course of action. Conversely, Buzz Manager also monitors traffic to particular sites, so schools know where to market their products most efficiently.

“There are a lot of schools and conferences which are slowly coming to the realization that they don’t have the money to launch a big marketing campaign through classic media outlets, but they can still send a message and engage their fan base on multiple platforms,” Hessert said. “New media is one place they have to educate themselves about and start maximizing their potential.”

Hessert points to fiercely loyal and often displaced fan bases as the major users of these sites.

“Clearly there are communities that are advocates and evangelists of your brand,” she said. “Look at Longhorns, Volunteers and Notre Dame fans. Those are passionate fans who will perpetuate your brand voluntarily. There are very good things there — you just have to understand the strengths and weaknesses.”

Cost vs. benefit
In a day and age when even mascots aren’t safe from a hazing scandal, sports media training seems like a no-brainer. Not so, says one expert.

“A lot of coaches and [sports information directors] are not on board with media training, don’t see the benefit, don’t see it of being a value to the program,” Long said. “But as the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle continues to highlight the things athletes do wrong, there will be an increased need for training at this level. I can even see a time when high school athletes will need it. … It’s still not regarded as a necessary skill, but it’s going to get there. After a few more Dukes or Northwesterns, schools will start doing [sports media training] as an insurance policy.”

The athletic directors who have used these services agree.

“It’s hard to argue with it,” Heisler said. ” I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will say this is a bad thing to do.”

“You pay for it on the front end or on damage control,” Krebs added. “In the Internet age, there is so much information out there.”