University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon was the keynote speaker Friday at the KeyBank Global Leaders Forum at the University of Toledo and during his presentation, an audience member asked him how the athletic department handles social media in relation to upholding its brand.
At the end of the hour-long presentation, in which he discussed the expectations he’s set for Michigan’s athletic program, including customer service, marketing, and the program’s culture, the third-year athletic director addressed the issue during the question-and-answer period.
Mr. Brandon was asked how the University of Michigan monitors social media among its 900 student athletes to avert incidents such as the one in October in which an Ohio State University athlete posted on Twitter that going to class was pointless because he was only there to play football.
He told the audience that in addition to having all its coaches, staff members, and administrators connected to student-athlete and coaching social media accounts, UM’s athletic department employs two outside consulting firms to monitor its student-athletes’ online activities.
Consultants monitor the Michigan athletes’ social media activity because online actions could inadvertently damage the university’s brand and by extension, the university itself, Mr. Brandon said.
One of the two consulting groups — which David Ablauf, Michigan associate athletic director, told Crain’s Detroit Business was 180 Communications Inc. of Tallahassee — utilized a young, attractive woman to go online and contact student-athletes.
“We took this really beautiful picture of her and she went out and baited some of our student-athletes, some of the guys into having an online relationship,” Mr. Brandon said. “Baited them into doing all kinds of things and saying all kinds of things.”
The unidentified woman turned over to athletic department officials posts and comments that were made, and the names of student-athletes. During a presentation on social media awareness, online responses the athletes had given the woman were put up on a big screen and the athletic department introduced the woman to the student-athletes.
“You can just see the guys who bit the hook slide into their chairs,” Mr. Brandon said. “She proceeded to put on the screen the responses they had given to her on the Internet. It was painful, but the lesson for these kids was, this stuff doesn’t go away. And you never know who’s on the other end of one of your little messages. You thought this was confidential … but you saw this in front of your peers.”
Lee Gordon, vice president of corporate communications for 180 Communications, said his firm has worked with students from 15 to 20 college athletic programs, including Michigan and the University of Toledo. Mr. Gordon said his company’s employees send friend requests on Facebook to student-athletes or follow them on their Twitter accounts. When they present to each group, they reveal what they have found on those social media accounts.
“What we try to say is, ‘You said yes and you had no idea who did this,’ ” Mr. Gordon said. “There are people doing this as we speak. You need to be aware of this, and our part is the education part. We say, ‘Look how easy it is to say this.’
“At the end, when we leave, we unfriend them. But we sent the message of ‘Take a hard look at who you accepted with Facebook. They may be trying to find out information.’ ”
Mr. Brandon, a former CEO, related it to upholding a brand. “Some of these young people today feel like, if you really want to be cool, you go on social media and you be outrageous, because outrageous is cool,” he said. “We teach our kids that you’re held to a higher standard, a higher level of accountability.”
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