The tenure of University of Michigan Athletic Director continues to be a fascinating PR study. As blogged about earlier this year, Brandon has courted and attracted public attention like no other athletic director in the recent boom of college sports in all types of media.
The latest chapter in this story of a college football backup turned corporate CEO turned college sports honcho centers on his most recent PR move. For months, observers have buzzed about one controversial Brandon decision after another, culminating recently when the University’s Board of Regents rejected his plan for fireworks displays at football games (receiving much public and media support). Seeking to get his message out, he did what many CEOs before him have done successfully – selected a journalist to take his message to the masses with credibility, a built-in audience and a limited filter. This verbatim Q and A with The Detroit News’ popular columnist Bob Wojnowski allowed Brandon to answer the swirling questions.
In theory, the strategy was smart. Brandon seemed well-prepared, obviously anticipating all of the questions in advance. But, along the way, he made some mistakes that show what appears to be a lack of understanding of at least some of his audiences. That, so frequently, is the root of PR problems.
First, he oversold the 2015 home football schedule, which includes non-conference (and non-power) opponents BYU, Oregon State and UNLV, saying it’s a “wow” for fans. CEOs, must always remember that customers are not stupid. To restore trust from fans, he would have been much better off saying the schedule is “improved” from 2014.
When asked if he is concerned about not continuing the University’s record streak of 100,000 at every game this season, he responded “No.” Then, he is quoted as saying “That’s why we’re marketing tickets.” That is double-speak and the audience can see right through it.
He told Wojnowski he think’s “flat-screen TVs” are the biggest competition for ticket sales in college sports. Again, customers are smarter than that. They know it’s about overall value. For memorable moments (winning programs playing rivals and quality opponents), fans still value the in-person experience. Customers know that flat-screens also exist in states where there’s still a waiting list for season tickets. Brandon went onto say that ticket sales are down “just about everywhere.” Customers know, from reading recent news reports, that isn’t the case at Michigan’s peer schools, namely Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
But perhaps the biggest PR error Brandon made in this interview was saying “I don’t pay attention to the social media stuff.” This comes from a CEO with more than 39,000 followers on Twitter. Does this mean, for him, it’s a one-way platform? If so, that will not meet the expectations for an employee of a public institution. While there are likely fans who post inappropriate comments to him, part of his job, in this day and age, is to differentiate between the trolls and the customers who provide thoughtful and informed opinion. That’s part of the new PR reality.
In a place like Michigan, college sports matter. That means in a job like Brandon’s, PR matters. Respect for and understanding of all audiences remains essential for wins on the field of public opinion.