Nick Saban’s Media Tactics, SEC Policy Tops UA Programs This Week

Even though the countdown to kick-off to The Alabama Crimson Tide’s 2010 season has been on the front page of The Tuscaloosa News for months, the rest of the world is just now shifting into “countdown mode” as we factor in football to our Labor Day Weekend plans.

Here at Alabama, two student organizations turned the spotlight on sports and media as they kicked off the 2010-2011 school year.    A day after beat writers and editors talked about the ethics in covering the Crimson Tide, the student chapter of Public Relations Student Society of America featured the top man in the PR operation for the Southeastern Conference.

It’s no surprise that both events drew packed classrooms with hundreds of UA students turning out to take in the wisdom of those covering sports and managing the brands of some of the most high-profile athletic programs in the country.

WVUA's Gary Harris makes a point as CRIMSON Magazine's Gregory Enns listens.

Monday night’s panel discussion sponsored by the UA Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists featured WVUA-TV ‘s one and only sports director, Gary Harris along with Jessie Jones from UA Alumni Publications, Dennis Pillion of al.com and Gregory Enns, founding publisher of Crimson Magazine.

After recounting some of their biggest stories involving the Crimson Tide, all four panelists were frank about the realities of covering Nick Saban and a national championship team from access to the “bad news” that fans don’t want to hear.

“We’re not going to shy away from something because we think there might be backlash,” said Pillion, who as a student was sports editor at Dateline Alabama when the scandal involving Former UA Football Coach Mike Price unfolded.

Pillion told students about the judgment calls he learned how to make even as a student editor about stories involving coaches.

“You cover scandals and at the same time, you try to make sure you don’t get caught up in the hoopla,” said Gary Harris, who readily admits that over time you can develop friendships with the coaches and their families that make it challenging to tell the bad news.

Taking a little bit of different perspective, Jessie Jones, who is the daughter of Crimson Tide Gymnastics Coach Sarah Patterson, told students how she learned to focus on the people behind many of her sports stories.  She was especially proud of a profile she did on Former UA Football Coach Mike Shula where she was given unprecedented access to him and his family.

Access is something that has been a particular issue for the sports beat writers on Monday night’s SPJ panel, which focused specifically on ethics.

“Nick Saban controls everything.   Everything he does is based on controlling image and recruiting,” Harris explained.  “You can’t just talk to a player when you want to talk to a player.”

A day later at the public relations-focused event featuring him as keynote speaker, Charles Bloom, associate commissioner for media relations at the Southeastern Conference, admitted that it’s a different day for coaches at all of the 12 SEC schools.

“The coach-media PR relationship is at its worst,” he said.  “There is a fractured relationship with the media.”

Bloom was frank with the more than 150+ public relations students about how proactive PR and crisis management are now more heavily emphasized in college sports.

“You’ve got to protect the brand,” Bloom said.

Covering Nick Saban

But, the journalists speaking a day earlier to a crowd of mostly journalism students cautioned how this protecting the brand by coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban could impact how they do their jobs.

“I do think we all worry that it could affect our ability to cover the team,” Harris said.   “When you’re covering a program like Alabama you get access, but you don’t want that access to be taken away.”

Pillion, who writes for the Tide Corner blog for al.com, explained to students who Saban often tries to set parameters around the lines of questions asked during his news conference, the latest of which had just occurred hours before Monday’s panel.”   According to Pillion, Saban will tell reporters topics on which he won’t answer questions.  But, that doesn’t stop reporters from firing away their questions on “touchy subjects.”

“He’ll blast you for asking the question, then he’ll answer it,” Pillion said.

The sports journalists were fairly unanimous in their advice to the students, many of whom seek to work in sports media, that they have to be prepared when they interview Alabama’s head football coach and expect to be “embarrassed” if they’re not.

Even as the issue of covering Nick Saban consumed much of the hourlong panel on Monday, the SEC’s new more restrictive media policy came up at both events.

Still Sour About SEC Media Policy

In the process of negotiating its new television deal with ESPN, the Southeastern Conference initially set some restrictions on the extent to which anyone could use social media tools such as Twitter at events that are broadcast.

“Gentry Estes’ Twitter feed is not competing with a CBS broadcast,”said Pillion.  “This new policy could potentially change how people get coverage online.”

In his remarks to the PRSSA on Tuesday, Bloom addressed the policy.

“We blew it guys.”he said. “It was very overreaching.”

Bloom noted that the policy had been revised after consulting with such organizations as the Associated Press Managing Editors and the Radio-Television Digital News Association and as far he knew “Everybody’s OK with it.”

Bloom, who started out as a news-editorial journalism major before switching to public relations while a student at University of South Carolina, maintains his membership in groups of basketball and baseball writers.  He emphasized transparency in his 30-minute address to the UA students.

“I’m an open guy.  I believe in openness.”

“Status quo is Best”

That was apparent in his not dodging questions about some of the most controversial topics of 2010 such as recent talk of expanding the Southeastern Conference as other BCS (Bowl Championship Series) conferences have expanded.

“We have 12 very strong schools,” Bloom said when explained that as far as the SEC is concerned, the “status quo is best.”

“If we were to expand, somebody would have to add tremendous value.”

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Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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