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Making the Message Count: Rebranding the Media Relations Department

By Stephen W. Dittmore, PHD

As he described the Montague-Capulet feud in 1300s Italy, Shakespeare directed us to the importance of a name. The suggestion that a name does not necessarily reflect its properties (that a rose would smell as sweet if called by another name) gives rise to the question of why existing brands, or organizational units, change names. Is there an implicit suggestion that a name change is necessitated when a particular unit changes its strategic focus?


This past Tuesday morning I tweeted out a link to a Rivals story about the University of South Carolina athletics department rebranding of its media relations division. That unit, formerly called Media Relations, shall now be known as Athletics Communications and Public Relations.


One of the things which struck me about the USC announcement was its brutal honesty. Steve Fink, Assistant Athletic Director – Communications and Public Relations (formerly the Assistant Athletics Director/Media Relations) stated plainly, “we no longer rely solely on the messages carried by external media sources.” I highlighted that quote in my tweet which, by my standards, generated an abnormally high amount of engagement on my social feeds. Of course, I associate with a number of sport media faculty-types who enjoy this stuff, so maybe it really isn’t a big deal.


Fink is, of course, correct. Athletic departments no longer need the media to carry messages. This fact has been well document in other pieces I have written for ADU, as well as by media and scholars more generally. Fink justified the name change as a way to aid “the recruiting efforts of our coaching staffs.” Director of Athletics Ray Tanner stated “This new designation will assist us in communicating the story of Gamecock Athletics more effectively.”


Those two quotes jumped out at me for the following reasons. Tanner’s comment implied dissatisfaction with current media coverage of Gamecock sports. We know newspaper coverage is shrinking and athletic departments are increasingly resembling their own media companies. This direct-to-consumer approach allows athletic departments to reach their stakeholders without the previously required mainstream media filter. In addition, Fink’s quote implied a changing audience for the work of communications departments by incorporating prospective student-athletes as a stakeholder group.


For the better part of college athletic history, Fink and his contemporaries have been referred to as SIDs (sports information directors), and they are frequently stigmatized by that historic role, one in which statistics and game notes are important. SIDs, historically, are tacticians, fulfilling requests for interviews and information. Strategic communications and communications to a larger audience has, historically, been an afterthought. The only previous role the SID played in recruiting athletes was to produce the slick, glossy media guide, which would be sent to a prospect’s home or presented as a takeaway on an official visit.


Academic research in this area has consistently shown athletic directors express the most confidence in their top communications person’s ability to maintain contacts with media representatives and work with coaches and athletes, both of which are tactical functions (see Ruihley and Fall, 2009; Ruihley, Pratt, and Carpenter, 2016). That same research has also shown ADs score their top communication’s person lowest on strategic functions such as setting public relations goals and conducting public relations research.


Does South Carolina’s name change cement a shift away from the historic, tactical role of this unit and toward a more proactive, strategic function? A comment on the Facebook post of a faculty colleague from Mississippi State who shared the South Carolina link prompted me to further investigate this idea of rebranding away from media relations. Was South Carolina’s switch cutting edge, or merely a reaction to similar changes in the market? Academics who study organizational change might evaluate this change from the perspective of isomorphism.


In 2013, researchers Jimmy Smith and Marvin Washington used isomorphic theory to study career paths of college athletic directors, noting an increasing trend toward similar backgrounds and experiences of sitting ADs. DiMaggio and Powell (1983, p. 149) defined isomorphism as “the constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions.” The authors argued that one way in which organizations in a population change is through mimetic isomorphism, whereby organizations faced with uncertainty model themselves on organizations which are perceived as successful.


Given that all Division I institutions face similar regulations (e.g., NCAA bylaws) and, likely, have similar rights restrictions, it seems logical to assume athletic department’s communications units are experiencing their own mimetic isomorphism. As one communications unit experiences success, others would mimic that structure.


So, to satisfy my curiosity I conducted a quick content analysis of athletic department web sites this week to see how the communications/public relations/sports information/media relations function is branded in athletic departments. For ease of language purposes, I will refer to these departments generically as “Communications” going forward, even if the department has a different moniker.


I delimited my sample to the 40 schools which make up the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12. My logic was these three conferences have existing linear cable networks focused exclusively on their conferences. While I am not privy to the exact contracts among those conferences, their institutions, and the respective linear network, I assume similar restrictions exist regarding content ownership and regulations. Therefore, grouping those conference schools together in a study made sense, especially when examined through the lens of isomorphism.


In addition to ascertaining how communications departments are branded, I examined titles of the senior communications person listed on the athletic department’s website. Doing so, I figured, would provide some context as to how athletic departments view the role of communications within the overall department structure. Is South Carolina’s rebrand unique, or does it merely reflect the larger isomorphic tendencies in college athletics? Here is what I observed.


Of the 40 schools I examined, only six refer to their communications division as Media Relations, the term from which South Carolina moved away. Interesting to note that three of the six schools I observed are in the SEC (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas A&M). Two schools, both in the Pac-12 (Colorado and Southern California), still refer to their units as Sports Information (Utah, a third Pac-12 school, has a hybrid name of Communications/Sports Information). The remaining 32 schools all use some variant of Communications. Missouri and Penn State were the most unique, both referring to their units as Strategic Communications (more on that later). In South Carolina’s defense, it is the only school in my sample to refer to “Public Relations” in its unit name, making it somewhat unique as well.


Titles for senior communications staff varied greatly from institution to institution. Through my observations, six of the 40 schools did not have someone on the administrative staff with an observable, direct role in communications. That is not to say no one oversees communication, it was just that I was not able to determine who performs that role by reading bios (when available) or observing through titles.


At the highest level, more than a quarter (n=11) of those individuals listed as serving on the athletic director’s administrative staff (or similar) possess business cards which include a reference to “External Affairs,” “External Relations,” or “External Operations”. Twelve of 40 schools had three communications staff members with at least “Assistant Athletic Director” in their titles, but no school had more than three. Three schools (Michigan State, Minnesota and Southern California) had no one listed on their directories with an Assistant Athletic Director (or higher) title for a communications staff member.


The non-external staff titles mostly contained “Communications” in the title. I observed two instances of “Football Communications” (Maryland and Michigan) and one instance of “Men’s Basketball Communications” (Indiana). Only two senior communications staff in my sample still had the historic “Sports Information Director” title (Colorado and Southern California)


What I found that I had NOT expected was the prevalence of “Strategic Communications” in individual titles (n=9), despite only two schools (Penn State and Missouri) naming their units “Strategic Communications”. Six of those with that title work at schools in the Big Ten Conference (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers), two in the SEC (Arkansas and Missouri) and only one (California) in the Pac-12.


When Sandy Barbour announced Penn State’s switch to “Strategic Communications” in 2015, as part of an overall department restructuring, Barbour commented that the sum of the moves would help push the athletic department into a more forward-thinking posture. “We are moving in a direction that will effectively serve our most important stakeholders, our student-athletes, while employing a contemporary business model to engage and provide value to our fans. This strategic move will allow us to modernize our business while taking a national leadership role in intercollegiate athletics.”


The growing usage of “Strategic Communications”, coupled with “External” titles suggests athletic directors recognize a need to bring together the multiple internal units which aid in dissemination of news and information. What was once the domain of “Sports Information” now also encompasses departmental websites and social media platforms. Titles now include “New Media” and “Video Production” and “Digital”. Perhaps my favorite title belongs to Oregon State and its Associate Athletic Director, Ideation.


This confluence of technology, content, and structure has not yielded what I would have expected to find (recognizing the limitations of my, thus far, small sample size). That is, there is no evidence to date of isomorphism within athletic departments and how they structure communications. Athletic departments appear to be approaching this function in their own manner. Some (Vanderbilt) have hired full-time beat writers. Some (Ohio State) have full-time social media staff who do nothing but generate content for football, largely aimed at the recruiting process.


But I think the results of my impromptu research is telling. What we think of as the historical SID role no longer exists. I wrote in an earlier piece for ADU that I thought SIDs (or Communications staff) should move away from the traditional, tactical roles they have historically performed, and into the realm of storytellers.


I began my professional career in the Drake University sports information office as an undergraduate and graduate assistant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Through my involvement on two Olympic Games I was honored to work with many SIDs whose names are synonymous with their schools. Claude Felton is Georgia. Ed Carpenter is Boston University. Heck, my colleague at Drake, Paul Morrison, who turns 100 this weekend, spent 74 years at Drake, beginning in sports information, and is referred to as Mr. Drake. I am not suggesting any of those individuals did not evolve in their careers. I know they all did. But I think that as the core SIDs from the 1970s through 1990s have retired, their universities are slowly rebranding away from the traditional SID role.


The more I consider the variety of unit names in my 40 school sample, the more I believe it is evidence athletic departments are struggling with how to structure communications functions. No singular “best practice” exists, and it may never exist. Each school, its market, and its fan base are different. More audiences than the mainstream media exist for the content these units produce – alumni, boosters, recruits, sponsors.


As a result, I am now interested in learning more about the thought process behind naming these units. What do athletic directors perceive they are saying as they rebrand units the way Tanner at South Carolina did? How do they perceive the value these units add? In other words, does a rose by another name still smell the same?