SBD/November 7, 2013/Colleges

Maryland Denies PR Team Posted Positive Spin On Fan Boards About Big Ten Move

Maryland officials launched PR moves to sway reactions of students and fans
The Univ. of Maryland anticipated that most fans "would initially react 'emotionally and negatively' to last year's decision to join the Big Ten Conference," so the school "sought to influence the debate with a plan to lobby media pundits and plant positive comments into fan message boards," according to Jeff Barker of the Baltimore SUN. The PR campaign was "meant to help turn the tide in favor of the move." It included "hiring a corporate communications consultant to help shape the message and also working to prevent news of the negotiations from getting out before the move was imminent." One day after negotiations on the impending move were disclosed, UM Assistant VP/Marketing & Communications Brian Ullmann wrote in an e-mail to Deputy AD Nathan Pine, "So far, this is unfolding just as we expected." Ullmann also wrote the school planned to "engage professional assistance in helping to drop positive messages into the blogs, comments and message board sites." He wrote, "I will arrange for this service today." Many of the e-mails discussing the PR strategy "copied top Maryland administrators" such as President Wallace Loh and AD Kevin Anderson. However, Pine yesterday in an e-mail wrote that the athletic department "did not hire professionals to promote Maryland's case on websites." He added, "We sought advice from many public relations professionals and received a number of suggestions. The Athletic Department did not engage in anything of that nature." Corporate Communications Consultant Lee Zeidman, a UM grad, said that the school's PR campaign "should not be characterized as damage control." Zeidman: "This was nowhere near the kind of corporate campaign where we plot out a strategy to protect the organization or sell an idea to shareholders or consumers. This was, 'How do you explain an incredible opportunity to take the university in a new direction, and you know it's going to upset a lot of people?'" (Baltimore SUN, 11/7).
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