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A PR Postmortem of the College Football Scramble

16 Jun

Few things rival my obsession with football, although watching the media cycles churn – seeing what gets covered and doesn’t, dissecting carefully crafted statements for hidden meaning and witnessing perfectly timed leaks is another considerable fascination of mine. Both worlds collided in spectacular fashion recently, leaving me and many others with Pac-10/16/12 and Big 12/4/10 ties on the edge of their seats for a two week ride through what could have been and ultimately came to be.

I’m talking about the nearly colossal restructuring of the “power” conferences in college football, specifically the Big 12 who lost one and nearly half of their teams to the Pac 10 (after Nebraska bolted to the Big 10) with promises of a record-setting network deal that would guarantee each member of the Pac 16 upwards of $20 million per year for their athletic departments.

While the specific motivations and impact on college football, athletics and academics are being discussed at length elsewhere, I wanted to focus on some of the key events that reinforce many of the media relations topics we cover with our clients and during our media trainings.

Timing is Everything

A critical part of our role as communications counsel is keeping tabs of trends and topics and taking advantage of timing whenever possible.  While college football has a built-in audience starved for information during the summer months, the timing involved with this entire saga was masterful. The concepts of conference implosion and superconferences dominated the national conversation, media scrambled to get the latest inkling of where universities were leaning and many powerful people and organizations were driven into action to protect their own interests.

To recap, June 2-4 the Big 12 held their annual meetings where whispers of Nebraska being unhappy and potentially jumping ship with Missouri to the Big 10 started to gain momentum. Despite the rumor, all was relatively calm on June 2 as Big 12 Commissioner Don Beebe promoted the unity of the conference in prepared remarks to the media. But clearly all was not well, as Kansas Athletic Director Lew Perkins looked like someone was breaking in his back door when addressing the media about the Big 12’s future that same day.

The following day, Thursday June 3, Chip Brown from (a blog covering all things Texas Longhorns) reports that the Pac 10 plans to invite six Big 12 teams to their conference. Chaos ensues.  This leak is timed not only during media day, but hours before the podium mics go live.  The press conference is pushed back, then canceled outright, and both the commissioner and a few athletic directors escape from the assembled media through back hallways to their respective headquarters without comment. The rumors are now legitimized.

During that weekend the Big 12 issues deadlines for select teams to commit their loyalty to the conference, Pac 10 Commissioner Larry Scott declares he has carte blanche from the university presidents to expand and all eyes look to Nebraska as the first domino to fall for the Big 12 to begin its implosion.  (Cougcenter provides a thorough recap & breakdown of the carefully timed leaks here: PAC-10 EXPANSION: Scott, ADs shrewdly use media)

Throughout the course of many days and media cycles over the following workweek, Nebraska bails to the Big 10, Colorado joins the Pac-10 and reports from college football experts and insiders lean toward five more Big 12 universities following them, including the grand prize of the University of Texas. An official announcement is scheduled for Tuesday, June 15.

That leads us up to last weekend, where Commissioner Beebe starts to promise more money for the remaining schools, reassures Texas it can create and solely enjoy the proceeds of its own network (something the Pac 10 would not promise) and gives strong indications that they can pull in a conference network deal rivaling what the Pac 10 had to offer despite having only the two Texas markets in the top 25 compared to the six the Pac 16 would have.  By many, this was considered a hail mary by a man desperate to save the conference and his job. But on Monday broke the news that Texas was leaning toward staying in the Big 12 with ten teams because of this deal, with a potential announcement by end of day.  Once again, this blog covering all things Texas Longhorns was right.  The Big 12/10 survives and the dramatic reshaping of college football fizzles down to the swapping of a few deck chairs. In the aftermath, the question is whether Texas was ever serious in the first place or using the Pac 10 and media to get everything they wanted.

Regardless of the intent, this is a powerful example of timely, strategic communication and media relations that will be referenced endlessly by communications professors and PR professionals for years to come.

Blogs Reshape the News Cycle

The central role that and Chip Brown specifically played is a strong reminder that blogs – niche or not – can lead the news cycle depending on sources and timing.  Chip Brown had both on his side and elevated his name and reputation as a result, and was referenced as the source in nearly every ESPN and national media update. One can only imagine the traffic spikes to during the past two weeks.

Beyond the power of blogs, the story of Chip Brown itself speaks to the drastic changes in news media.  He once covered the Branch Davidian standoff for the AP and worked the Texas Longhorns beat for 17 years, including ten at the Dallas Morning News.  Sensing the decline of the newspaper, staff downsizing and the potential loss or merging of his beat, he jumped to in 2008.  Given the huge boost to this site, it not only looks like the right move but perhaps a trend that will continue – journalists turned bloggers with more contacts and familiarity about the subject than either the remaining traditional media or the blogger who simply sees a niche and decides to fill it.

Public Comments Often Drive Behind-the-Scenes Results

This Bruce Plante cartoon was inserted by the highly biased Longhorn grad Jess Flynn (Hook 'Em!)

From the beginning the University of Texas was the epicenter of potential change.  Their fans and alumni dominate two of the top ten U.S media markets in Dallas and Houston. Combining this with four more top 25 markets through the Pac 16 made the promise of $20 million per year in TV revenue legitimate and gave Texas the most clout of anyone – both conferences included.  They leveraged this clout publicly with the leaks and updates to Chip Brown, putting the Big 12 on the precipice and leading Commissioner Beebe to give them everything they wanted – more revenue (Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M will split the buyout money Colorado and Nebraska will pay the conference), the ability to create and harvest the proceeds of their own network and an even stronger competitive advantage in their conference and across college football.

No doubt there is more change to come, but the colossal shift appears to be off the table for now.  But the past two weeks have offered an unbelievable ride and many lessons for anyone involved with the media about the importance of timing, the substantial role that bloggers have and how media relations can drive results – behind the scenes and in the minds of your stakeholders. Now if we could just start the college football season already…

– Chad Biggs
(aka Red Sky Token Male)

Turning Off and Tuning In

9 Jun

It’s not surprising that when the performance artist Marina Abramovic sat down face-to-face — in silence —with strangers for her recent piece at MoMA, participants frequently reacted like this. When was the last time you did something similar? (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art's Flickr stream. Photo by Marco Anelli.)

The New York Times published an article earlier this week about the price we’re all paying for our slavish devotion to all things tech: iPhones, iPads, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail. It’s the latest in a flurry of dire articles published by the Times about how technology is not only ruining our ability to concentrate, it’s making us less productive at work and ruining our relationships with co-workers, friends, our children and our significant others.

I’ve been waiting for this for a while now — in fact, when Jess asked me a few months ago about the newest trends in social media, my number one trend was the coming backlash. I use social media all the time; in fact, it’s a big part of my job. Not only is technology part of my everyday life, but I’m consistently amazed at the connections I’ve made through it, both personally and professionally.

But is it too much of a good thing?

In April I went to the Basque Country in Spain and unplugged … because my iPhone inexplicably wouldn’t work. This was a big change from my normal routine, which involves (not even consciously) checking e-mails every 90 seconds or so and “multi-tasking” to the point of ridiculousness. In Spain, however, I could just enjoy the company of my family and friends. There were plenty of people with Blackberry addictions — a Basque friend related how she took her husband’s out of his hands during a family vacation and threw it down the street, smashing it to pieces — but I was struck by something I haven’t seen in a very long time.

People were talking to each other. At cafes they chatted over café con leche. In the evening they strolled through the streets — and no one was taking cell phone photos of each other or Tweeting about their walk. At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I was struck by a father and mother talking to their teenage daughter. They were really listening. And the daughter was really talking. Without portable technology devices.

I think it’s weird that that was weird to me.

When I returned home, I immediately went back to my old multitasking habits. In fact, I let them get out of hand: Checking e-mails from bed in the morning, answering texts at 10:30 p.m., and generally getting so distracted that I was of no help to myself or to others.

So I’m cutting back. I’m not cutting technology completely out of my life, because that’s ridiculous and, ultimately, not helpful. This is the way we live now. I’m no Luddite, and I don’t think you should be, either. But I am setting some rules for myself:

  1. If I’m on the phone with you, I’m on the phone with you. I’m not checking an e-mail or posting to Twitter. Just the two of us having a conversation.
  2. Ditto face-to-face conversations.
  3. I’m working on one task at a time until it’s done.
  4. If I don’t respond right away to the e-mail you sent at 4:30 a.m., don’t panic. I’m just sleeping. You should be, too.
  5. I’m setting aside 30 minutes each day for quiet time. In other words, no cell phone, no TV, no iPod, no computer, no social media.

Ultimately, public relations is about relationships. I don’t want to be part of a relationship if I’m just one of many distractions for a person.

Do you?

– Julie Hahn

Eyes Bigger Than My End Table

8 Jun

When I put a query out to the great social universe “Working on a post about the biz/mgmt/marketing books you buy and those you actually read 😉 What do you have on your shelf?” one of the fantastic replies mentioned having ‘eyes bigger than time’ with many books still waiting to be read. As the picture to the left illustrates, I too suffer from ‘eyes bigger than time’ and more accurately, eyes bigger than my end table.

Although I’m jonesing for an iPad to mainly use as an e-reader I’m not quite sure that I’ll ever get over the feel of perusing tangible bookshelves for that one inspirational tome or the sound and smell of cracking open a new spine. And although my pile of ‘to be read’ gives me a twinge of guilt it also gives gives me a sense of hope, that the words within just one chapter or section of the magazines and books will  help me be a better entrepreneur, business owner, boss, chef, homeowner or creator.

And that’s what it is all about. Hope. The inspiration that comes from the covers, chapter openers and back page reviews of the zillions of business and lifestyle bibles that come out every nanosecond. For awhile I tried to keep up with ‘what you are supposed to read’ by subscribing to essentially Cliff Notes for Adults. But it felt like I was cheating myself out of something more. Then there were the management-endorsed (ahem, mandated) business books. First – Who Moved My Cheese? (which we ironically gifted back to our boss when the new management team laid him off), and then Jim Collins’ Good to Great (and I’ll own up to using the ‘right seat on the bus’ metaphor one time too many!)

But with all the sherpas I’ve now discovered whose minds and opinions I can gain access to daily, there are books I covet on a daily basis. From the great focus group of friends that is Facebook, Twitter and my recent excursion to the Counselor’s Academy in case your end table is not covered… (* are the ones I have on the shelf or are picking up soon!)

From the ‘Read ANYTHING by these writers’ bookshelf:

Malcolm Gladwell: Blink, The Tipping Point, What the Dog Saw, Outliers (loved it though not sure I agreed with it all), *The Tipping Point
(recommended by communicators Kaiva Klimanis, Katie Whittier, Samantha O’Lea)

Seth Godin Including the newest *Linchpin – Are You Indispensable?’ (props from marketer Jim Hall)

Jim Collins: How the Mighty Fall, Good to Great, Built to Last

Heath Brothers: *Made to Stick, *Switch

IDEO: Anything by the brains at this shop, including Tim Brown’s Change by Design , and Ram Charan – Leaders at All Levels, What Customers Want(courtesy public relations pro Kaiva Klimanis)

Recommended by:

corporate communicator Stephanie Martin: Latest issue of Fast Company, The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

entrepreneur Mark Gilbreath: Heath Brothers! and Connected by Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler :The Surprising Power of our Social Networks

recruiter Kirk Baumann: Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi: And other secrets to success, one relationship at a time, Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose

marketer Courtney Feider: Wealth from Within by Lori Culwell

marketer Tracey Werre: *Naked Conversations by Shel Israel & Robert Scoble: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers and Whuffie Factor by Tara Hunt: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business

As for what’s in my end table pile:

– Jess