Loose Talk

Is there a way to put a stop to Internet message boards? Probably not. But there is a way to lessen their negative effect on your athletic program.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at KBerkowitz@MomentumMedia.com.

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1702/loosetalk.htm

It’s not hard to list the problems of Internet message boards. They can spark rumors that are nearly impossible to disprove. They can cause sports information directors to waste countless hours putting out fires. They can be a distraction for coaches and athletes. And they can be a breeding ground for negative publicity.

"In my opinion, message boards are the hardest thing our profession has to deal with right now," says Duff Tittle, Associate Athletics Director for Communications at Brigham Young University.

"It’s the Wild West out there," adds Bill Shapland, Senior Sports Communications Director at Georgetown University. "The fact is that there are a lot of people who have negative opinions, no matter what’s going on. And message boards provide them with an opportunity to voice those opinions."

At most chat sites, posters can log in anonymously and attack anyone they want, from student-athletes to athletic department staff members. If they’re clever enough, they can sign on with an assumed name, pretending to be the school’s football coach, athletic director, or even president, and claim to be honestly critiquing their own program.

Even if they’re not very clever, they can easily pose as students at your school, pretending to have inside information about a star quarterback’s knee injury or launching a rumor about your team’s new offensive formation. And if they’re dedicated enough, they can create entire Web sites devoted to getting one of your coaches fired.

"The tough thing about message boards is that there’s really no accountability for anyone who wants to post a message," says Mike Hill, Assistant Athletic Director for External Affairs at the University of Florida, where fans started a site targeting former Head Football Coach Ron Zook. "That doesn’t mean that all Internet information is false. But there are no standards. The messages don’t have to be right and they don’t have to be true."

And that’s making athletic administrators’ jobs a lot tougher. "When something is being talked about on a Web site, and you don’t know whether it’s true or not, it’s a very, very difficult situation," says Tittle.

With thousands of message boards taking root across the country, there’s little that athletic directors can do to stop the trend from spreading. Like it or not, chat rooms have become part of the game, and from high school to Division I, athletic departments need to ask themselves the same questions: Should athletic administrators read Internet message boards? Should they respond to them? Should they start one of their own?

READING MATTERS
Keeping up with what’s reported in the mainstream media is more than enough work for most sports information departments. But to monitor every message posted on every chat board, an athletic department would need to hire an additional two or three employees working around the clock, says Shapland, and even if the money were available, he doesn’t think it would be a productive use of an employee’s time. He feels it’s certainly not worth his time, so Shapland doesn’t read the boards, and neither does anyone else on his staff.

At other sports information departments, though, employees are assigned to occasionally check Internet message boards. Hill and his staff at Florida keep track of two of the most popular chat rooms focused on Gator athletics. "We’ve determined that it’s important for us to have an awareness of what’s being said out there in the world of message boards," says Hill. "We’re not going to consume ourselves over message board content, but we have a few people on our public relations staff and external affairs staff who check out these two message boards from time to time. And in rare instances, there is information that we want to look into in regard to compliance issues or concerns about how a student-athlete or coach is conducting themselves.

"Nine times out of 10, that investigation doesn’t lead to anything," continues Hill. "But for that one time in 10 that the source is accurate, it’s important for our department to have the information. And if there’s blatantly false information out there about the athletic program, it’s important for the department to have an opportunity to correct that misinformation."

At the University of Missouri, Director of Athletic Media Relations Chad Moller follows a similar strategy. "You can’t completely ignore message boards," says Moller. "In this day and age, the Internet is a big outlet for supporters and detractors of our program, which makes it something we have to be mindful of. There have been many times when I’ve signed onto a message board and been able to read something I would not have seen otherwise. And there have been times when people have suggested things they’d like to see on our Web site. These boards are a clearinghouse for a lot of information, another way to get ideas. They can be a good resource."

Moller doesn’t include the message boards in his daily routine, but makes sure to check them from time to time, reading the chats to help gauge public opinion. "Any time you have a big news item, it’s a good idea to get in the chat rooms and check out the responses," says Moller. "It’s certainly not the only way to measure public opinion, but it can give you a general feel for what people are thinking. However, I do keep in mind that people who are negative are more prone to voicing their opinions on these kinds of boards."

Whether or not your communications staff reads the boards is up to you, but how should you advise athletes and coaches in regard to logging on? Moller tells his athletes to completely avoid reading message boards, although he understands it’s likely they won’t always follow his advice. "It’s best if they can ignore the message boards completely, but I know that some of our student-athletes look at them," he says. "It’s perfectly understandable why they would, so I just tell them not to worry about what’s being said out there—it’s just people voicing their opinions."

Steve Weakland, Director of Athletic Media Relations at Fresno State University, also discourages his athletes from reading the message boards, and even includes a discussion about them in his student-athletes’ preseason media orientation. "We tell them they’re better off not looking at the message boards," says Weakland. "But if they do, we tell them not to give too much credence to what’s being written because it’s coming from anonymous sources. We also educate them on the differences between the legitimate media and anonymous message boards.

"We had a football player this year who was going through a slump," continues Weakland, "and he said, ‘Man, people just hate me.’ And I said, ‘The majority of the fans out there love you and they know you’re trying. You’ve got to ignore all that stuff on message boards. Stop reading them, and just think about things you can control. If there’s a member of the media who’s being critical, we can work with them, because we know who they are. But when the criticism comes from an anonymous source, there’s not a lot anybody can do about it. It’s like watching a TV show—if you don’t like it, turn the channel.’"

Weakland gives his coaches the same advice about message boards: "Don’t read them and don’t worry about them," he says. "If you don’t pay any attention to them in the first place, then you won’t get upset. If the writer doesn’t have the courage to put their name on, it’s not worth the effort to read it."

TO RESPOND OR NOT?
As much as communications professionals try to downplay the postings on message boards, they don’t suggest totally ignoring a negative untruth, especially if it’s gaining momentum. Weakland says he’s never signed onto a chat board himself, no matter how inaccurate the posting. "But when I’ve been made aware of rumors that are out there," he says, "I’ve investigated some of what’s been said to see if there’s any basis in fact." On the rare occasion that he feels a need to respond to a message board, he’ll contact the site administrator, or if the criticism is directed at the university, he’ll ask the university’s communications department to contact the site administrator.

Like Weakland, Moller chooses not to directly respond to the posts, preferring to approach the Web administrator instead. "When someone has started a rumor that’s just totally baseless," says Moller, "we’ve contacted the administrators of the site to say, ‘This posting couldn’t be farther from the truth, and we’d appreciate it if you’d consider removing it from the site.’ Obviously, it’s the Web administrators’ decision, not ours. But in the past, they’ve been pretty cooperative about taking these posts down."

The key, says Hill, is to establish working relationships with administrators at the major sites that cover your school, just as you would with members of the mainstream media. "It’s not exactly the same kind of relationship that we have with a newspaper or TV station, but there is an open line of communication between us," says Hill. "That way, if there’s an accusation about our program, we can contact the administrator of the site. But we don’t engage in battle over every single posting. We’ve chosen to deal only with the big picture concerns."

At BYU, where there are a handful of message boards devoted to Cougar athletics, Tittle has chosen to only develop relationships with sites affiliated with traditional media outlets, and steers clear of less traditional, fan-based sites. In his experience, the traditional sites have shown more interest in cooperating with the university while the smaller, independent, fan-based Web sites, which he calls "mom and pop shops," have not. With virtually no staff, no background in journalism, and no corporate stake in the community, these smaller sites have little interest in playing by the rules, says Tittle.

THE POWER OF ACCESS
A bigger question that has arisen is: Should athletic departments deny press credentials to the "mom and pop" sites? Is it okay to use your power of access to encourage sites to play by the rules?

Six years ago, when David Plati, Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations at the University of Colorado, denied press credentials to a small fan site, the publisher of the site sued for access. The publisher argued that Plati had violated his First Amendment right to gather news by excluding him from team practices and preventing him from interviewing coaches. The courts have consistently sided with the university, ruling that Plati doesn’t have to treat this site the same way he treats traditional media, but the Web site publisher has continued to appeal.

Plati continues to stick to his guns: Web sites that host message boards must treat their posters like newspaper columnists, identifying each by name, and Web sites that don’t won’t be given press access. "Access is a privilege, not a right," says Plati. And most of his peers agree.

BYU, for example, only grants press access to sites that are connected with traditional media outlets. Sites that operate independently, without any interest in journalistic integrity, can not get press credentials for BYU events.

"We have these mom and pop shops, where someone paid $19.95 to get a Web site," says Tittle. "They’ve hung up a shingle, and now they want to sit in the front row at our games and talk with our players after practice. And we have to ask, What have they done to prove that they’re a legitimate news source? Who are their writers? Do they have any training in journalism? How long have they been in business? Do they have an editor? Do they have an organizational structure? Do they have someone to moderate the message boards?

"A lot of our problems," he continues, "have come from untrained people who are trying to provide content on a Web site. They’re not sure how to act, they don’t understand protocol, and they post inaccurate material. If we provided access to them, we’d be legitimizing them as a news source."

What about those Web sites somewhere in-between journalistic endeavors and mom and pop shops? Tittle is currently working with such a group and has found it to be a balancing act. He originally granted press access, but later rescinded it after the site posted a series of messages attacking department personnel.

"They weren’t attacking the university, they were attacking individuals," says Tittle. "So at that point, I called up the managing editor of the site and said, ‘You can put an end to this and we can work toward having a relationship in the future. Or you can let these attacks go on and seal your fate.’"

The site has since hired a new editor, and the two sides are negotiating another set of credentials. "Some of the message sites don’t care what we think, but this particular site is trying to act responsibly, trying to work with us, trying their best to keep the conversation flowing," Tittle says. "So we’re giving them another chance, and their ability to have additional access hinges on how they use it."

BYU has also been able to insist that its community’s local newspaper Web site abide by some rules. First, before messages reach the site’s chat board, they’re sent to a queue, where they can be screened by an employee of the site. Until they’re vetted, approved, and posted, a message appears on the board saying, "Waiting for editorial review."

Second, instead of giving readers a place to post their comments directly underneath an article, the site has moved its readers’ responses to a separate page, where they’re less likely to be mistaken for commentary written by the newspaper staff. Third, the newspaper has hired a journalist to write exclusively for that part of the site. In response, Tittle has offered to provide press access, including opportunities to attend practices and conduct interviews with players and coaches.

"You can’t control the message completely," says Tittle, "but you can provide parameters for sites that want to do a good job and be above board."

PUSHING THE POSITIVES
The final tool athletic departments are using to combat negative message boards is by improving their own Web sites. "These other Web sites are never going to go away," says Plati. "But the more things we offer on our own sites, the more fans we can draw. Athletic directors and SIDs need to realize the power we have in our own Web sites."

For the past five years, Plati has written a Web column called "Plati-’tudes," which collects short news items that haven’t been covered by the mainstream press. Occasionally, he also uses that forum to directly address rumors appearing on message boards. A typical column from last season included Colorado Buffalo trivia questions, a pitch for an autobiography by a former athlete, an analysis of graduation rates, a critique of ESPN’s interview with the football coach, a photo of alumni serving in Iraq, and a congratulatory message to a former department staff member. Plus, it included a survey that Plati had conducted on the site, showing that 51 percent of his readers don’t visit chat sites, and 67 percent don’t post messages on chat sites.

"In the past, I’ve addressed some bad misinformation," says Plati, "and fans have e-mailed back to say, ‘Thanks for clearing up that rumor. I didn’t think it was true.’ Because my name and contact information are on the column, it offers credibility to what I’m saying.

"Use your site to offer your readers something unique," continues Plati, "and if you’re going to use a column from an AD or an SID, don’t make it the usual company line. Offer people something that’s going to want to make them come back for more."

At BYU, Tittle draws fans to the department’s official site by offering audio and video streaming of games, post-game interviews, and press conferences. Occasionally, the site will host chat rooms, which are moderated by the athletic department to maintain a professional image of the program and the university. "We’ve learned to use our staff to create positive messages that we can control," says Tittle. "With our Web site, we’re taking people where they’ve never been before: press conferences, game highlights, coaches’ comments. This is what our fans were asking for, so we’ve developed the products to keep them coming to our site.

"We’ve had some good experiences with Web sites and some experiences that were as difficult as anything I’ve ever been through in college athletics," continues Tittle. "I’ve learned that it’s a lot more worthwhile for me to spend time putting positive messages on our Web site than fighting with all these other sites."


Sidebar 1: LEARNING FROM HISTORY
Thinking of starting your own message board? Save yourself the trouble.

Back in 1996, the University of Colorado’s athletic department at decided to host a message board of its own. But before long, the department—along with a handful of other athletic departments trying the same experiment—realized it was a mistake.

"This was in the infancy of the Web, and it seemed like a good way to draw some traffic to the site," says David Plati, Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations. "But it got to the point where people were fighting on it. There was a big online feud between fans from Colorado and Nebraska, and that led to some racist comments, and we realized we couldn’t sponsor a Web site like that.

"We weren’t getting anything good out of it, and it was more of a hassle than anything else," continues Plati. "We were having to play censor, taking down people’s posts, and then facing questions about why we’d deleted one post but not another. At that point, we just shut it down and got out of the chat room business as quickly as we could."

At Fresno State, a similar experiment with message boards proved not worth the effort. "We had a message board as part of our site several years ago, but it just wasn’t very popular," says Steve Weakland, Director of Athletics Media Relations. "We had hoped to create an all-positive, all-the-time message board, but we weren’t able to pull it off. We’d asked people to put their names on their posts, and maybe that was part of the problem. People just weren’t using it."

Looking beyond its popularity, Bill Shapland, Senior Sports Communications Director at Georgetown University, sees a wide range of problems in hosting your own chat room. "Message boards are an opportunity for spammers to sell their products to your fans," says Shapland. "They’re an opportunity for your opposition to stir things up. They’re an opportunity for disgruntled fans to rip your team. Unless you can hire someone to be a full-time moderator, you’re creating a potential disaster for the public relations face of the university. All those negatives make it a bad idea for schools to be directly associated with message boards in any way."


Sidebar 2: UNDER ATTACK
Even before Ron Zook took over as Head Football Coach at the University of Florida three years ago, a Gator fan had already started a Web site attacking him. Going online in 2002, fireronzook.com didn’t stop criticizing Zook until he was fired last fall, when the site celebrated with a one-word headline: "Victory."

"It was a constant negative, a black cloud that was hanging over his head," says Mike Hill, Assistant Athletic Director for External Affairs at Florida. "It had no true effect one way or another on Coach Zook’s career here, but it was a PR issue. It was an irritant, because the mainstream media picked up on it, and that added to the perception that there was little or no acceptance of Coach Zook, which was completely untrue."

To present the other side of the picture, Florida directed attention to Coach Zook’s Web site, which was accessed through the athletic department’s home page. The department also brought Zook onto its official site for a series of well-attended online chats—one of the chats drew almost 100 questions—and worked to keep its message upbeat.

"What works is aggressively promoting your coach and your program in a positive light in all media, which is what we did," says Hill. "Between newspaper, radio, television, and our own Internet site, we greatly exceeded the traffic that fireronzook.com ever experienced.

"If a university is faced with a negative Web site, it’s imperative the athletic department do all it can to promote a positive message about its coaches and its program by all means possible," continues Hill. "And in the end, there’s a lot more muscle behind an athletic department’s public relations effort than there is behind one Web site started by a disgruntled fan."