Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by former student-athlete, Karen Freberg, who shares her experience with Universities’ social media monitoring, policies and restrictions.
Athletic departments have taken an active role in not only engaging in social media promotional activities to increase their brand presence among their fans, but also to use it to monitor and for listening purposes. Universities like the University of Oregon have established their own social media command center called “Quack Cave” to listen, monitor, and engage with their followers on various social media platforms.
However, it was reported across several traditional media outlets that both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville have taken an active role in monitoring what their athletes are tweeting about. Both universities, along with a few others listed in this USA Today article, use the UDiligence software to be able to do this. UK and UofL have certain terms that they have flagged as being inappropriate for student-athletes to use when communicating via social media.
However, this situation is not new by any means, and I have experienced this first hand myself as a former student-athlete in track and field. I had the opportunity to compete for the University of Florida and the University of Southern California in the shot put. While both of these two universities share common characteristics: strong academic programs, historical and accomplished athletic programs, and strong reputations for both athletics and academics. Yet, both had opposite views of having their student-athletes have a voice online.
My backstory began when I was just 13 years old and created my website. Even though it started off as a Val Kilmer fan site, it transformed into a platform to use to showcase what I was doing in track and field in high school for college coaches. I was one of the few athletes at the time with a website, and it did help in separating myself from other athletes, keeping coaches informed of what I was doing in track and field, and providing them with a platform to get to know me as a person. The combination of the website presence and being ranked #1 outdoors in the nation in the shot put in 2001 helped me get a full scholarship to compete in college athletics.
When I entered college athletics, I created a newsletter I shared and sent out via email called Kmail, which was created to provide an insight of what it was like to be a collegiate athlete in track and field. From track meets to banquets to competitions on the road, all of these elements were covered along with several pictures to tell the story. I also contributed to a popular collegiate track and field blog during my collegiate career called Trackshark (site is no longer available).
While at Florida, not only did the coaches and athletic department want me to focus on writing certain things in my newsletter and feature specific athletes, I had to also pass along my blog posts to Trackshark to the Sports Information Department. Once they reviewed it, I was given the green light to send it to my contact at Trackshark. I was actually called in a few times to discuss what I had posted on my newsletters and what I had written about. In other words, the athletic department liked the fact that they were getting the accolades from the track community with the newsletters and commentary posts – but wanted to control all of the content I was sending out, even my website – which I said no to.
At USC, it was completely an opposite end of the spectrum. I graduated from Florida in 2005 and went to USC to pursue my Master’s degree in Strategic PR. When I came to USC, the coaches and athletic department embraced my online presence and said it would be great for recruiting. They knew I was in PR and said they felt I was doing a great job. I was able to write about my experience competing for the Trojans the first year as a graduate student and finishing up my time at USC as a graduate assistant for the team.
Two similar athletic programs, two totally different perspectives on student-athletes having a voice and sharing their story via social media. Based on my own experience, I feel that athletes need to have the opportunity to be on social media. Only a few student-athletes will go professional in their sport – and more companies and businesses are expecting young professionals to have a presence on social media.
Here are the take-aways:
- Fine line between monitoring and controlling conversations: While it is good to monitor for the extreme inappropriate behavior, there needs to be a balance between showing your personality and being professional via social media for student-athletes.
- Have students take social media classes: Most universities now offer social media classes, so athletic departments should encourage their student-athletes to take these courses. If there are no classes at the university, have a workshop for student athletes each semester to keep them updated with the latest trends.
- Giving student-athletes a voice brings them opportunities for their career: I’ve had many opportunities from having a presence online professionally after track. Some students will go pro in their sports – and this will give them a chance to build their own social media community base. For others, an opportunity to engage with the new media and explore opportunities after their eligibility is complete.
- Set up barriers, and people go elsewhere: First it was MySpace, then Facebook, and now communication restrictions for athletes in Twitter. This will always be a cycle of events. What is next – monitoring what student-athletes are pinning on Pinterest? If you set up barriers in one place, people will go elsewhere to have the same conversations as before.
In summary, athletic departments at universities are businesses, and student-athletes are their employees. Brands and companies all have social media policies – and athletics is joining the club with engaging in more listening and monitoring practices for their athletes. This is going to continue to be a trend for the future, and more discussion needs to happen in the social media community across the board.