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TALL TASK: LEVERAGING THE MEDIA FOR ECU (Part 1 of 2)
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Part 1: Inside Athletics Media Services
— A Small Crew Doing Big Things for ECU —

Saturday, December 31, 2005
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By Ron Cherubini

With a Relatively Small Budget and Limited
Resources, Department Elevates Output

INSIDE ATHLETICS MEDIA SERVICES

Part 1: With a Relatively Small Budget and Limited Resources, Department Elevates Output ... More...

Part 2: A Week in the Life of the Athletics Media Relations Department ... More...

 

East Carolina's
Athletics Media
Relations Staff

 
Tom McClellan, Director


Jody Jones
Associate Director


Malcolm Gray
Assistant Director


Pam Forrest
Administrative Assistant/ Secretary

Jon Cole (not pictured)
Staff Assistant (intern)
 

 

A Week in the Life of the Athletics Media Relations Department

So, it’s a crispy fall Saturday and you are with your friends and family in Greenville ready for another East Carolina University football game. For you, the weekend is just getting going. For the ECU Athletics Media Relations staff, it has been a six-day production in the works. ... More...
 

Common Misconceptions About Athletics Media Relations

  1. We’re members of the media.
  2. We’re nerdy stats and computer geeks.
  3. We’re part of the coaching staff.
  4. We only support the football, basketball and baseball teams.
  5. We’re an all sports database, not just ECU, but all sports professional and amateur.
  6. We control what is printed in papers or aired on television.

Believe it or Not, it’s True

I recall getting asked by an out-of-state media member whether I could confirm the pending hiring of John Doe (I’ll leave off the real name for sensitive reasons) as our football coach in late November. As it turned out, John Doe had passed away in October, a little less than two months before Coach Holtz was hired at ECU.”

— Tom McClellan —

 

©2005 Bonesville.net

East Carolina fans and alumni are no strangers to hearing about the mountainous obstacles standing between the athletics program of today and the potential collegiate sports Promised Land. Out front, everyone sees the high profile Athletics Director Terry Holland out on the stump. Everyone knows about the men and women who lead the athletics teams… the likes of Skip Holtz, Ricky Stokes, Billy Godwin, Tracey Kee, Sharon Baldwin-Tener and Bill Carson. Everyone knows the Pirate Club and its leader Dennis Young.

But, behind the scenes are quite a few organizations and people who make things happen in ways not so obvious, not so high profile.

The Athletics Media Services Department — formerly known as the Sports Information Department — is one such organization.  The department is an internal support division reporting directly to the athletics director’s office.

For many, the inner workings of the department are a mystery. They are sometimes confused with the Sports Marketing Department and other times, they are mistaken for journalists, criticized for not having enough creative flare or providing enough feature-oriented material.

In the summer of 2004, East Carolina University hired Tom McClellan to head the department and in doing so, injected much-needed energy and expertise into an under-appreciated but vitally important aspect of the ECU athletics machine. For many, McClellan represents a level of professionalism not seen at ECU since Charles Bloom, currently an associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, manned the position.

McClellan shared his insights into the inner workings of his office, providing an inside peak of how the department functions.

Gaining an understanding of the department’s mission helps to frame the actions and the outputs of the department.

“Generally speaking, our task is to publicize the total program in the broadest fashion possible by taking full advantage of our athletic success, academic achievement and compelling figures in all ECU sport programs,” McClellan explained. “We always need to attempt to tell the media our story — by working as diligently as possible — in its coverage of Pirate Athletics via any vehicle (releases, website, phone calls, personal visits, e-mail, publications, etc.). Simply, our top priority is establishing and maintaining exemplary service to the media, administrators, coaches and student-athletes at all times. I feel that relationships with those constituencies are built on a foundation of honesty and strengthened by a forthcoming approach. The byproduct is credibility, which is then sealed with unparalleled service. Service is simply meeting the needs of your public with quality work on a timely basis. In summary … it signifies doing what one promises.”

And while the former moniker of Sports Information Department may describe what McClellan is stating, the evolved name — Athletics Media Relations — demonstrates the elevation of the mission and nuances of the role that the department plays within the holistic sports program.

“I think there are a multitude of reasons for the title ‘revision,’” McClellan said. “It perhaps introduces a little more of a corporate mindset in terms of identifying what we do (i.e. mirroring public relations), maybe reaching a little deeper in labeling our responsibilities across the board as opposed to a stereotypical belief that we solely write releases and keep statistics. On the humorous side, because of the departmental listing in the phone books, I know many ‘sports information’ offices who were continually called by people on and off-campus to find out what time the racquetball courts or swimming pool opened in the morning. Then, there’s my favorite ... the call from bars late at night when we’re working late to ask who won the 1982 Super Bowl or where Tiger Woods rates against Jack Nicklaus on the all-time win list to settle a bet.”

Though it is a safe bet that he and his staff knew the answers to those late night queries — the San Francisco 49ers won the 1982 Super Bowl and Jack Nicklaus holds a 73-46 tour victory margin over Tiger for the record — in all seriousness, the sports information they produce and manage is no joke. The department of four full time employees, with the help of an intern and four student helpers, manages to provide timely information, photographs, multimedia, and more for all 18 intercollegiate varsity programs to the myriad state and national print, video, and more recently online media outlets. They do this from their cramped quarters in the Ward Sports Medicine Building on campus.

“Simply, (we move) everything we can get our hands on,” McClellan said. “Obtaining the information has become much easier as a result of the advent of technology with the online world. In addition to the traditional staples — like information on recruits, staff hires, accomplishment comparison research, professional affiliations/stats, etc. — the Internet also serves as a great tool for us to educate ourselves on connections and names in the media (online or traditional). Of course, there’s still my favorite way of finding out information — by personal contact.”

Armed with fax machines and computers, the department personnel cater to the variety of media services that depend on them for ECU-related information. For print media, e-mail allows McClellan's staff the ease of “cut and paste;” for radio and television, "PDF" files allow for printing and reading on air; and for many other outlets, including online media, McClellan noted that ECU's official athletics website provides the means to pull down information ad hoc.

There is more of course to the job than pushing out information to media nets.

“We are always working on keeping contacts (distribution lists) as up to date as possible — personnel changes in this business occur every day,” McClellan said. “We have a primary list — local/regional which get everything we send out, then a sport-specific list… for example, for football, opponent media, bowls, award voters, national columnists, football magazines, football contacts at ESPN/CSTV/ABC/CBS and others, etc., and a hometown list — all media in the student-athletes’ home town areas — and a handful of others: TV only, radio only, PSRN only, website only, C-USA schools only, selected ECU campus leaders only, etc.”

In addition to servicing the 40-50 print, radio, and television outlets on their local list and 200 some interested media organs for football, the department also must stay aligned with its constituent organizations. Internally, the department coordinates with the other departments that come under the direction of the athletics director’s office.

“I know it’s an oft-used cliché, but our department — especially under Terry Holland’s leadership — is truly a model based exclusively on teamwork,” McClellan said. “There hardly is a day that goes by where I don’t have direct interaction and discussions with our (sports) marketing, licensing, ticketing, Pirate Club and ECU News Bureau folks. Specifically, if the media relations and marketing departments can’t work together, we’ve got serious problems. After all, we both are charged with basically the same assignment … increase awareness.

“The Pirate Club has allowed me to help play a role with some of their efforts, which has resulted in many rewarding friendships and the development of key contacts all over the region during my first year at ECU. I’m also exceptionally blessed to have personal access to one of top PR practitioners in the country across campus in John Durham, who heads ECU’s News Bureau — among many other responsibilities. John has provided me with invaluable counsel from his top position, especially during the active ‘crisis management’ year we had in 2004-05. Speaking from experience, most SID's across the country do not have the relationship with their counterparts on the ‘news side’ that I do with John. For that alone, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have him nearby with his contacts and years of experience.”

And before anyone begins to believe that the Athletics Media Department is simply doing the work for the news media, there are differences.

“Other than sharing similar duties like covering events, writing stories and shooting photos … we are talking about two separate entities,” McClellan explains. “It is our job to service the media and provide them with resources to do their job — facts, angles, working space, communication tools, images, etc. That’s what gets frustrating with the misconceptions that get out there. Believe it or not, I’ve worked places where coaches and administrators called the SID office ‘the media’ or short. I’d hear them tell their players to ‘go down to the media office and fill out a questionnaire,’ or ‘have your picture taken,’ etc. Worse yet, I have had colleagues tell me that their administrators or coaches would not include them on discussions concerning crisis management because they were under the impression that they’d be telling the media private information. I can’t understate it again … a media relations/public relations department is critical to the ‘health and/or recovery’ of an athletic department and university at times of crisis. Simply, our interests solely lie in the public welfare of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, the department and university. Yes, we desperately need to assist our friends in the media to help tell our stories to the public, but let’s not forget that their loyalties are to a completely different audience.”

As with most operations, there are ebbs and flows to the work that the staff must generate. Along with the struggle to produce daily information on every collegiate sport at ECU, the department also must rise to the occasion to meet special demands at critical junctures.

“We continually work throughout the year,” McClellan said. “Something always needs to be done, if not with a sport directly, then with other facets of our operations — website, archival filing, etc. I wouldn’t call them milestones, but there are certain times of year where the alarm clock tends to ring a little earlier. Anything associated with football has a high degree of importance, so, yes, media guide production is a big chore (April, May and June). Other ‘dates’ of significance are signing day (February), the start of spring football (March) and the fall reporting date (early August). Of course, anytime we have a home game in any sport, it is an endeavor we take a lot of pride in doing right. You have the chance to form a lot of positive opinions when visitors come to ECU, thus rolling out the red carpet is a must.”

The staff does all of this on a budget of less than $250,000 per annum. And when printing costs each year are in the neighborhood of $65,000 it is easy to understand why above all, McClellan values his staff of highly dedicated personnel, willing to put in the hours to get things done. And they know what skills they are looking for when they do add staff.

“Obviously, like most public relations or communications positions, the ability to write effectively is of paramount importance,” he said. “Sure, it’s also a benefit to have someone well-versed in technology skills such as desk-top publishing, proficiency in the HTLM language, statistical software and other software-based programs. Yet, I will choose a person who possesses a passion for this profession, an unbridled work ethic and, most importantly, superior people skills above all other qualifications. My thought has always been that people can improve their writing skills and learn the computer lingo with time and experience; yet, nothing slams more doors on building and maintaining relationships than a lazy, unfriendly individual who lacks any sort of fire. I still, to this day, don’t understand why people (if healthy, in town or void of scheduled appointments like dropping kids off to school, etc…) don’t show up for work early with their sleeves rolled up. To me, getting paid to work in collegiate athletics every day is simply the greatest job in the world. In short, I’ll take a person who promptly replies to e-mails, returns calls, sends old-fashioned ‘thank you’ notes and brings that unsolicited extra bottle of Pepsi or water to the radio people who are on the air anytime.”

The changing landscape

Since the explosion of the .COM era, more and more athletics media relations departments are adapting to the host of opportunities provided by the worldwide web.  And the irritations, too.

A powerful tool for efficiency in a small, minimally funded operation, the Internet has, indeed, changed how the Pirates media relations personnel conduct business.

“(The Internet has changed things) incredibly, from both a time-saving factor to a more work-producing arena,” McClellan said. “The advent of technology has helped tremendously — e-mail, automated in-game statistical programs, publishing software — but it has also added another responsibility the SID is typically charged with: maintenance of a website. We now are assured that what we disseminate will be ‘published’ and accessible or available to billions of people worldwide, where before, we were solely at the mercy of the media for coverage. Needless to say, there’s not a single more powerful tool in our department than our website to educate, inform, entertain and create interest in Pirate athletics.”

Powerful, indeed. Of course, with the explosion of websites, so too was there an explosion of message boards, chat rooms, etc. McClellan chooses to see these as a positive mechanism, though he admits they are not always positive by nature.

“Unfortunately, those are one of the few negative elements produced by the increase in technology,” McClellan said of the message boards. “On the plus side, message boards do offer a platform for people to communicate who share the same interests, passion and love for Pirate athletics. Yet, like everything else in society, there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. I think most folks who work in collegiate athletics have developed pretty thick skin and consider the ‘comments’ part of the business and move on.

“I know many of our fans mean well, but often lose sight of the human side of our business, like when they openly suggest a change in leadership with a simple, unaccountable press of the ‘submit’ key. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and all of us do know that there are many experts out there who feel they can do our job much better than we do. That’s the way it is pretty much everywhere. On the other hand, I have received some solid ideas and suggestions from people who have approached me in a proper manner and, thus have engaged in appropriate dialogue. Perhaps my only two serious frustrations in regards to the message boards has been that is has turned into a media resource site, often turning the wildest and craziest of rumors and stories into actual inquiries I receive from accredited media members. (Sometimes) the accuracy rate on some of those posts is a little higher than I’d like it to be.”

This fall, coinciding with football season, ECU went the way of many college programs by outsourcing the website to a vendor. McClellan is happy, though he was cautious knowing that the department needed to contract a vendor which would put the effort into the website that equaled that of those who love and care about ECU.

“Obviously, I’m ecstatic about the development and progress in this area,” McClellan said last summer as ECU prepared to roll out its new website powered by CSTV. “In my opinion, we have been in dire straits in regards to updating and upgrading our site so we can honestly compete against our rivals in the ACC, SEC and Big East to name a few. It’ll be nice to simply get back to a level playing field when it comes to our online presence. ..."

With all of the benefits of the Internet, McClellan now likes to turn some of his thoughts to the what's on the horizon in his business.

“(The future) honestly depends on future advancements made in the technology area,” he said. “Just as recently as 1996, I didn’t have e-mail nor an idea what a website was. I honestly thought Yahoo was just a chocolate drink. So, that was less than 10 years ago and look at us now. Obviously, there will be continued growth in everyone’s online presence … we will probably be in a position to broadcast nearly every sporting event at ECU via our website and our hands will undoubtedly be involved in that endeavor. I expect we will be able to start producing video news releases, which are broadcast quality that we can send to the hometown TV stations of our student-athletes. Regardless, I don’t expect us to give up our keys as the gatekeepers of information anytime soon.”

In its function, the SID's office must work in concert with the other organizations within athletics. Deeper, the group must work with the various coaching staffs to ensure that correct information is moved out of the organization.

“(Our involvement with coaches) all varies depending on the sport and personality of the coach,” McClellan said. “We obviously work with the coach to handle the routine things — updating rosters, scheduling photo sessions, getting signee information, obtaining pre-game starters and post-game quotes, etc. With the high-profile programs, which receive more media attention, a large part of my job is setting up interviews. During the season, there is a structured schedule, but during the off-season it becomes more difficult to coordinate people’s schedules while trying to respect the coach’s personal time. Some SID's become close to the coach, so close in fact that it interferes with the decision-making process during critical times when there is a need to remain professional in exercising good judgment. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some SID's who only see the coach on game day — needless to say, a very unproductive manner to conduct business. With some sports, we ask that the coach call us from the road if we don’t generally accompany that team to make sure we have what we need for our release and website. We also encourage their input when putting together media guides.”

Ahhh… those media guides. These days, media guides are much more than they ever were. In fact, the average fan now can obtain a media guide, which has changed the function of the document. It serves, almost, as a preseason magazine — only more accurate and without the predictions. And the work that the staff puts into the media guides differs little from sport to sport.

“There is no difference from a philosophical standpoint (in the effort they put into a given sport, revenue or non-revenue),” he said. “The only thing which dictates or alters our time and schedule is the increased media demand with some of the high-visibility sports like football and men’s basketball. There’s still media guides to be published, stats to be compiled, home game coverage/services and a website presence which needs our attention.”

Of the guides, however, the football guide is the most sought after and the work the staff puts into that document shows.

“It’s a lot more relaxed than it used to be, that’s for sure,” he said. “In the day before digital images, there were photos and logos laying around everywhere plus pages and pages of copy ready to be sent in for typesetting. Now, we simply burn CD's for our printers, which contain everything. If we need to send additional items, it can all be done via e-mail. Proofs are sent back from the printer as PDF and corrections are done over the phone. About the only time it looks a little messy is when you get the blue-line stage of the job where you’ll actually have large rolls of paper spread out on your desk to look at one more time and sign-off. Usually I try to assign different sections like the stats, records and opponents sections of the book to members of my staff, particularly the person who serves as the secondary football contact, who was Malcolm Gray in 2005. “

The production of media guides is not an easy task with a small staff and short timelines, but the effort is intensified by requirements set out by the NCAA — requirements that the ECU staff takes very seriously.

“Many (of the regulations) concern publications — including a recently imposed maximum (size limitation) of 208 pages, complete with rules about page size, colors on the inside of the book, (among other stipulations) and signee publicity — when to release what, no additional releases to cover all-star game appearances, etc.,” McClellan explained. “Many of the no-no’s in our business revolve around the College Sports Information Director’s of America (CoSIDA) Code of Ethics which ‘govern’ our profession to a degree — which unfortunately, many violate every day — such as cheering in the press box, criticizing referees and officials and playing favorites with different media members for starters.”  

And like the rest of the department, McClellan’s office must adhere to Title IX requirements. 

“We’re held accountable under the same regulations as anyone else, making sure that we devote the same number of personnel and materials and media guide size to a given women’s sport as its identical male counterpart,” he said. “You won’t see a difference among many of our Olympic programs such as soccer, golf, track and tennis and in fact, some of those are printed together as one book.”

The media guides are not the only preseason publications that the Athletics Media Relations office is involved with. They also provide much of the raw information used in all of those preseason magazines that fans rush to buy during the summer.

“Typically, we receive and complete many questionnaires during the late winter and early spring from those preseason football magazines like Athlon, Street & Smith’s, The Sporting News and many others. I try to fill it out as thoroughly as possible — usually on a typewriter — often adding more information and photos than they could possibly use. That’s one of the reasons why I felt strongly about publishing a fully-fledged spring media guide at ECU as well. Some call us right before they go to press and ask for updates. We customarily provide them our strengths and weaknesses and some names of who we think will be key performers the next fall. Most also hire freelance reporters to write the Conference USA preview so I help set them up with an interviews with Skip Holtz.

“On the awards, we’ll get usually get inquiries from about half of the organizations (i.e. Dick Butkus, Doak Walker, etc…) during the late summer to see if we have any candidates we’d like to include on their respective ‘watch’ lists. Before launching a promotion or even nominating a candidate, I’ll check with Coach Holtz to gauge his thoughts and confirm my credibility if anyone in our program is truly a worthy candidate for a certain honor. You have to be careful … there are SID's out there who try to nominate someone every year or a player at each position. I was always thought it was best not to ‘cry wolf’ too often, which in the end, helps validate your efforts in the future should we actually have a legitimate candidate we want to promote.” 

Guidelines are also adhered to when it comes to credentialing working press for events.

“In an effort to seek uniformity and consistency across the board, I generally follow the prescribed NCAA guidelines which dictate the affording of credentials to accredited working members of the media,” he said. “While each institution has different policies in place, the general rule is that credentials are for those specifically working the event. Sure, there are always a few exceptions to each rule, but the general idea is to provide the media with a professional atmosphere in which to do their job. The more non-workers — or drifters as I call them — there are with credentials, there is one less seat or space on the sideline for someone who needs to be there for a constructive purpose.

“In this day and age of website ‘agencies’, SID's have to be awful careful. We expressly prohibit the issue of credentials to websites that house or promote message boards for obvious reasons. Why allow someone access whose affiliation is damaging to your program? Other criteria I use are solely common sense. Questions I ask myself sometimes are … does a radio station really need five credentials for someone to hold a microphone during a post-game press conference; or is it really necessary to issue three photo passes for one photographer? If you buckle, chances are there will be a lot of buddies, non-workers and worse of all, children, clogging up your working area. People talk about perception being reality … nothing says bush league or displays an unprofessional operation more than when I see children on the media sidelines or in the press box. To me, it represents a total loss of control and management.”

In the media relations business, the facilities at a university can be critical to creating the outputs needed by the customers. McClellan believes that the facilities at East Carolina have helped his staff immensely…and limited them as well.

“Needless to say, some of our facilities rank as some of the best in the nation and it pretty much holds true when it involves our working environment,” he said. “Our press box at Clark-LeClair Stadium might simply be the best working college baseball facility in America. We have more than adequate space at Minges Coliseum for basketball, and while the press box at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium won’t win any special service or aesthetic awards, it is functional for our needs at the current time. Yet, with the expected growth and success in our football efforts, I’m not sure I will be able to say that in a few years. On the other hand — and to properly address some Title IX issues — we need a covered and protected working area at our softball facility so we can start doing things such as GameTracker Live (stats) for Coach Kee’s program like we do for baseball. Another wish of mine would be a similar facility at Bunting Field so we could produce the same for both of our soccer programs and perhaps even begin hosting track meets in the future. We have a lot to be thankful for but there are always improvements which can be made.” 

Any journalist who has worked an event or awaited releases from the office knows how proficient McClellan and company are at turning out first-time quality information almost instantaneously. It is a skill that can make or break a writer who is on deadline, awaiting the details of a game. McClellan’s staff is particularly good at this.

“The key here is to find someone who has that particular gift,” McClellan said. “Both of those statistical software programs — football and basketball — are incredible tools which allow us to handle a myriad of things with just one person and a laptop. In addition to spitting out the traditional box scores, that one computer also drives the GameTracker Live and our stat monitors which we provide to radio and television broadcasts. In terms of personnel, I’ve been very fortunate to know our stat crew chief personally for the past 18 years since she happens to be my wife Joanne. She possesses a keen knowledge of each game and the software. She says that perhaps the biggest asset is for that person not to panic if they get behind — there’s always a timeout at some point to catch back up. Needless to say, she also benefits from some outstanding help from spotters who help call out the action as the play develops. She began doing computerized stats back in the early 1990's and has now turned it into a second career of sorts, working different conference and NCAA basketball tournaments and American Legion Baseball Regionals each year.”

The Athletics Media Relations team has done an immense job given the budget limitations and the volume of information that must be moved across all the varsity sports offered at East Carolina University. For McClellan and his staff, it endeavor of joy not just for the university they serve, but also for the business of sports information itself. That said, is there anything he would change?

“Not much, that’s for sure as it is a true labor of love,” he said. “At times, especially late during the football season, the hours become overwhelming and the opportunities to spend time with your family become infrequent. Yet, there is truth to the adage about working smart, rather than working hard. There are literally no days off in this profession during the course of a season, so we sometimes look forward to the ones we ‘only’ have to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday is a full day in the office, getting ready for next week’s game. So, if the passion or love isn’t there, chances of survival in this business aren’t good. Some people think the coaches put in long hours, and they do, but the support staffs like Sports Medicine, Equipment and Media Relations are there as well. We always tell the coaches they have it easy, getting to leave right after the game and spend time with their families. We still have another three or four hours to go before our night is over and waking up on Sunday to head into the office.”

So what would he change?

“... (If) I had to pick one thing I could change,” he pondered, "it would be that our profession promotes the idea of being chained to a your computer which has turned our reputation as communicators into an impersonal version.”

The members of ECU's media relations staff are by no means a group chained to their computers devoid of personalities and it shows in the work they do.

Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.

Dig into Ron's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 02:06:18 PM
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