Baltimore Sun: Maryland used social media PR campaign to sway opinion on Big Ten move

Terrific piece of reporting by Jeff Barker of the Baltimore Sun. It really illuminates how teams, universities, players can help shift opinions in the modern media world.

Barker writes:

The University of Maryland anticipated most fans would initially react “emotionally and negatively” to last year’s decision to join the Big Ten Conference. So the school sought to influence the debate with a plan to lobby media pundits and plant positive comments into fan message boards.

Scores of documents and emails, obtained by The Baltimore Sun in response to a Public Information Act request, detail a public relations strategy that was as secret as the Big Ten negotiations themselves.

Maryland announced on Nov. 19, 2012, that it would depart the Atlantic Coast Conference after 60 years and join the Big Ten, effective in July 2014. It, as school officials predicted, led to fans expressing sadness and anger over losing popular ACC-related traditions such as facing rivals Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

The public relations campaign was meant to help turn the tide in favor of the move. It included hiring a corporate communications consultant to help shape the message and also working to prevent news of the negotiations from getting out before the move was imminent.

“So far, this is unfolding just as we expected,” Brian Ullmann, the university’s assistant vice president for marketing and communications, wrote in an email to deputy athletic director Nathan PineĀ on Nov. 18, one day after negotiations on the impending move were disclosed in the media. “We knew that in the absence of our messaging during this initial stage, most fans would react emotionally and negatively. That has occurred and clearly the message boards and comments sections skew heavily negative. Several of us placed comments on boards and media sites last night to help balance it out.”

The Scott Van Pelt angle:

In the days before the Big Ten discussions were made public, Maryland and its consultants considered how to release the story.

“Scott Van Pelt is a powerful voice in the media and a loyal UMD grad,” public relations consultant John Maroon wrote to a Maryland communications official before the story broke. “It would be in our best interest to let Van Pelt break the story and talk about all of the positives.”

Van Pelt is an ESPN television and radio commentator who attended Maryland and remains involved with the university.

In an interview Wednesday, Maroon said his thinking was that Van Pelt had a “national platform” and could have helped introduce a conference move expected to produce “varying emotions.”

News of Maryland’s negotiations with the Big Ten was reported on under the bylines of several reporters, but not Van Pelt’s.

“The consultants provided many suggestions, of which that [giving the story to Van Pelt] was one,” Pine said in his email to The Sun on Wednesday. “We decided not to pursue it.”

Van Pelt could not immediately be reached for comment.

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