Earlier this month, the University of Mississippi made public a 125-page response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations from February. The public disclosure of the university’s response was the latest in a series of moves by Ole Miss to appear transparent to its stakeholders during an NCAA investigation, a process that is typically highly secretive. The school maintains a microsite with various information designed to educate the public on the process, particularly Ole Miss’s perspective on the allegations.
Ole Miss’s approach has been unconventional, but not uncommon. Universities subject to recent high-profile NCAA investigations, such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Miami, have also maintained websites largely filled with press releases and university talking points.
In some ways, we can trace this “in the court of public opinion” approach to the May 2010 case NCAA v. Associated Press. In that case, the Florida Supreme Court compelled the NCAA to make available to media outlets documents associated with its investigation into an academic scandal at Florida State University. The NCAA had argued unsuccessfully the documents were not subject to Florida’s “sunshine” laws as the documents should be considered protected under the Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA). The decision, ostensibly, made the traditionally secretive NCAA process considerably more public.
In the year after the ruling, Richard Southall and Mark Nagel, now both professors at the University of South Carolina, speculated the court’s decision would “greatly impact the future operation of the NCAA and its member departments.” Southall and Nagel also opined in the wake of the decision, athletic department stakeholders might demand greater access to “public” documents pertaining to “their” team.
Indeed, it would seem Southall and Nagel were spot-on in their predictions, with athletic departments taking a more proactive stance in communicating their messages directly to stakeholders while an NCAA investigation is ongoing. The change in posture is significant enough to make one wonder if the internet had existed (in its current form) in the mid-1980s, whether SMU’s football program would have received the death penalty.
Whether this tactic of increased transparency influences NCAA sanctions is unclear, but Ole Miss’s approach is unique in two ways. First, unlike UNC and Miami, Ole Miss proactively published the NCAA notice of allegations on its site. My attempts to search the NCAA website for the same information came up empty. The only document I could find about Ole Miss allegations on the NCAA site was the 2016 infractions decision. In my mind, publishing the NCAA’s allegation represented a clear attempt by Ole Miss to try its NCAA case in the public eye.
The second unique aspect of Ole Miss’s strategy was the February 22 release of a 21-minute video statement featuring Chancellor Jeff Vitter, Vice Chancellor of Athletics Ross Bjork, and Football Coach Hugh Freeze. Ole Miss is not the first school to release a video statement; the University of Southern California used a similar approach in June 2009 to respond to allegations surrounding investigations involving OJ Mayo and Reggie Bush.
Comparing these two videos, one pre- and one post-NCAA v. AP decision, is instructive into the changing public relations approach by universities. First, the USC video on YouTube has, to date, approximately 3,200 views in eight years. Ole Miss, on the other hand, has 220,000 views of its video in four months, suggesting a changing importance of video in today’s consumer culture. While I suspect both videos had similar intents, the desire to have the university’s perspective of NCAA allegations presented to stakeholders in an unfiltered environment, the execution and content of these videos differed greatly.
Admittedly an unscientific metric, Ole Miss’s video has received nearly three times as many “thumbs down” ratings on YouTube as “thumbs up” ratings. Twitter reaction to Ole Miss’s video was quick, and largely unfavorable, with sportswriters calling it cowardice and comparing it to a hostage video. Indeed, the video comes across as extremely stiff, and, at 20-plus minutes, entirely too long. By comparison, the USC video featuring Todd Dickey, then Senior Vice President for Administration, and Mike Garrett, then Athletic Director, clocks in at just over six minutes, and presents changing settings for each speaker.
But more important than the logistics of the video was the substance of what was said. USC’s Dickey stated, “we cannot comment on any aspect of the investigation until it is complete.” Instead, he and Garrrett stressed how they take the allegations seriously and intended to fully cooperate with the NCAA. Clearly, this is what the NCAA wants; full subjugation by the university in an enforcement process where, as professors Southall and Nagel wrote in their summary of the AP case, the “NCAA serves as investigator, prosecutor, and judge.”
Ole Miss, on the other hand, attempted to address the NCAA allegations on a point-by-point basis with Bjork often outlining specific allegations the university intended to contest with the NCAA. All three Ole Miss speakers stressed the university’s core values and mission, and the importance of integrity. Freeze, in particular, attempted to shift the blame to the former players who were the subject of the allegations. Freeze positioned the current players as innocent, and implored the Ole Miss family to “rally around them and love them through this journey.”
And this is where I think Ole Miss might have executed its video differently and employed today’s technology to engage fans. Research from Natalie Brown (now at the University of Texas) and Kenon Brown and Andrew Billings, both of the University of Alabama in 2015, categorized fans as “active stakeholders”, defining them as “people not part of an organizational structure, who turn to social media outlets to help shape a story since mainstream media options are not available to them.” Crisis literature to date, the authors noted, has not delineated between those affected by a crisis, and those wishing to make an impact during crisis response.
However, two studies by the researchers present contradictory results of a university’s ability to harness the power of these active stakeholders. Using the Nevin Shapiro and University of Miami case as its focus, Natalie Brown and Billings concluded “fans can, indeed, become an effective arm of the university’s crisis response.”
Grounded in Coombs’ (2007) reputation repair strategies, Brown and Billings pointed to an ingratiation strategy in which fans rallied support for Miami among themselves. The researchers noted the creation of a trending Twitter hashtag, #IStandWithTheU, was wholly initiated by fans. Additionally, fans were active in sharing links to articles showing the school in a positive light and reminding one another of the storied history of Miami athletics. The researchers also found evidence of fans using social media to attack the accuser, directing criticisms toward media outlets for their reporting, as well as diverting attention toward other schools facing NCAA sanctions.
That last strategy, Brown and Billings noted, was particularly effective since Miami itself could not do that without facing negative backlash. Miami, however, was not held responsible for negative behaviors in which fans engage.
A follow-up study by all three researchers focused on the Penn State sex abuse scandal revealed somewhat contrary results. In this study, the researchers found evidence of fans turning on the university and focusing loyalty on Coach Joe Paterno instead, concluding the case provided “a warning for organizations that online fan-based crisis response may not always be enacted in their best interests.”
Specifically, the authors emphasized the volume of scapegoating directed at Penn State administration, citing lack of transparency as evidence. The authors noted the fan base “hurled insults toward Penn State officials through their social media accounts”, drawing a clear line of distinction between the institution and Paterno.
Clearly there is no guarantee of success should Ole Miss, or any other university facing NCAA sanctions, seek to engage its active stakeholders in the process. Indeed, a significant risk exists for athletic departments who cede message development to stakeholders on social media. Often, fans in this space use the anonymity of social media platforms to express frustrations toward a coach who is not winning or an athlete who, perhaps, missed a crucial field goal.
That said, as someone with 10 years of public relations practitioner experience, I applaud Ole Miss and others for educating their stakeholders about the NCAA process and communicating the institution’s position. I think the risk of using active stakeholders is worth taking for athletic departments under NCAA investigation. The results of the Miami case illustrate the potential upside of having online fan support using reputation repair strategies to influence social media followers at a time when the university may be limited in what it can say publicly. As Brown and Billings concluded, “Fans become a source through which a positive message can be issued to counter existing negative reports.”
However, athletic departments may wish to wade into these waters cautiously. Athletic departments in situations similar to Ole Miss may experience more positive initial feedback by creating shorter, 60-second sound bites for easier distribution, and sharing, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms which speak to today’s mobile consumer. There is a difference between providing relevant talking points in sharable forms to key stakeholder groups, and the overt cultivation of activist stakeholders. I suspect the latter will not be perceived favorably.