As I’ve mentioned before, I went to Michigan State University and I am a Spartan fan. I have season football tickets, and I go to several basketball games each year as well. Now that the regular college football season has ended, and we’re headed in to the NCAA bowl time, I’ve been thinking back on the games we’ve seen. With a season that is several months long, and games with crowds that involved tens of thousands of fans, college football offers a great opportunity to observe public relations practices. Below are nine things that I learned (or was reminded of) while watching college football this season.

Football in grass

1. Know your brag points.

MSU opened it’s season with a home game against Boise State. Anyone who has ever been to Spartan Stadium knows about the series of steep ramps that are used to access the upper seating level. These ramps are a hike on the way up, and a traffic jam on the way down. When I was leaving the game with the other 70,000+ football fans I ended up walking next to a retired couple from Idaho. They are die-hard Boise State fans who make a trip to an away game once a year. For 2012 they picked MSU because they had never been to Michigan. They decided to make the trip into a week-long vacation and were also visiting Chicago. The husband struck up a conversation with me about the stadium and how it differed from theirs (they were pretty amazed at the size of ours, but not fans of the ramps). The conversation progressed to discussing MSU in general. He then asked me what MSU was known for, “besides agriculture.” That little prompt instantly had me thinking of a traditional response – we have a good veterinary program. I also mentioned that we had a good turf grass program (we had just spent three hours looking at turf, after all). I was stuck in the rut of “agriculture” thinking. The gentleman got a little bit ahead of me before I thought to say we’re number one in elementary education and in nuclear science. He was long gone before it occurred to me to mention our top rankings in organizational psychology and supply chain management, among other things.

As a communicator, this interaction has bothered me since August. Granted, university statistics weren’t exactly forefront in my mind during a football game. Still, you shouldn’t have to think about brag points for your organization, whether it is a school, a non-profit or a business. Those should be ingrained so that when the random person in the crowd asks you what you’re known for you are able to say a simple response while being jostled in the mob.

2. Recognize the family dynamic.

Rivalries are a family affair. This was never more clear to me than at my friends’ wedding the weekend of the MSU at Central Michigan game. The bride is a Chippewa grad, and the groom (a sportswriter) is a die-hard Spartan. At the reception on Friday night, in lieu of a traditional dollar dance, the couple had a competition between their schools. Each fight song was played and a member of the bridal party ran around collecting money in support of that school. To be fair, MSU’s fight song is longer – but we still skunked the Chips. Following the gift opening on Saturday morning, guests stayed around to watch the football game on television. This was truly a unique group of fans, split among two teams but still willing to come together for the occasion.

I’m sure there are other similar stories out there of events that take on a life of their own when associated with organizations like universities. Organizations should make it easy for families to capitalize on their ties and should recognize that there are fans out there who are so loyal that personal milestones are planned with athletic schedules in mind. You can’t be much more loyal than that.

3. Play on emotional connections.

My dad is a devout MSU fan. His brother is the most fervent Notre Dame fan I have ever met, and his love of the Fighting Irish dates to his childhood. They have been to several MSU / Notre Dame games, both in East Lansing and in South Bend. I asked my dad once why they cheer for different teams. He told me that he used to be a Notre Dame fan (he still cheers for them if they aren’t playing MSU), and his loyalties switched to MSU when he was there for his bachelors degree. Their love of Notre Dame dates back to their childhood when, being good Irish Catholic boys, they would watch the Notre Dame football game and coach’s show on television with their dad. Having three sisters, it was their personal bonding time with just the boys. I knew from a communications standpoint that Notre Dame does a fantastic job of playing on their tradition and heritage, but it wasn’t until I heard my dad recount this story that I truly realized how powerful that traditional connection to a school can be.

1950's television set

4. Think of the big picture.

MSU recently teamed up with some of the smaller colleges (including Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Central Michigan) in the state for a Pure Michigan series of games. Each year we’ll play one of the schools at home and one away. There are financial benefits (how fees are split, etc.) that were awarded to the smaller schools to make this happen. While playing these schools at their stadiums may not be as profitable for MSU as playing other away games may have been, there are “big picture” benefits that can’t be discounted. By taking the Spartans on the road to these communities, the school and the athletic department are building community relations with these other towns. We’re also keeping tourism dollars in state and helping the Michigan economy. It is important for organizations to remember that the world does not revolve around them, and that their audience members live in the real world. Keeping the big picture in mind can help make strategic decisions to build your brand collateral. MSU is the state’s Big Ten university that is known for caring about the local economy and the fans of smaller schools and as the school that recognizes the university’s relationship to these other institutions and communities.

5. Infamy is influential.

I don’t want to say anything negative about another school, so I’ll just state a fact: Ohio State is know for a certain reputation when it comes to their attitude. Disagree with me if you want, but I think they tend to embrace it. I mention it here because of the impact it had on the crowd that surrounded me while watching the MSU vs. Ohio State game. My seats are in the upper deck and border the visitors section, so there is often some friendly jeering between fans of the home and away teams, but nothing serious. However when I sat in my seat waiting for the kick-off to this game I could already hear murmurs of apprehension among the home crowd. Many of those around us have had the same seats for years (or decades) so we know everyone fairly well. Many were expressing concerns about the attitude of the OSU fans before the game had even started, and really before they’d even had a chance to interact with the Buckeye fans. The preconceptions of how the OSU fans would act was coloring the view of the fans around me. Sure enough, there was one fan in particular who was extremely rude, and the crowd turned against him. Arguing went back and forth and eventually one of the OSU fans turned to the rude person and asked him to behave because he was making the rest of them look bad. The MSU fans all looked around and commented to each other, with an “I told you so” nod.

This experience shows how a reputation can hurt an organization before it even has a chance to prove itself. There really was only one truly obnoxious, unbearable fan in the OSU crowd, but MSU fans walked away thinking of all Buckeyes in a negative light. Without the reputation for attitude, the crowd may have just thought the one fan was annoying instead of thinking he was a perfect example of the behavior they expected to find.

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6. Expand your audience with social media.

This year’s MSU homecoming game was against Iowa. Many people are familiar with the tradition of college homecomings: the parade, the tailgating, the marching band performances, etc. It is a time when many alumni return to campus and reunite with old classmates, roommates, friends and family members. This year the office I work for recognized that not all our alumni are able to come back to campus, so we took our homecoming celebration to them. Using social media we developed a messaging campaign timed around the big game. It utilized Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and included a special video that was shared via an email campaign. (You can read more about this tactic in my previous post, Using Video to Reach Dispersed Audiences.) In this age of ever-changing technology and new media, organizations should consider expanding the audience for their events using social media platforms.

7. Treat your guests well.

This rule of public relations should go without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway. Treating your guests well is imperative. I’ve heard rumors and horror stories of the way fans and students are treated at other schools (there is supposedly one rival school whose student section throws batteries at our marching band), but I’ve never witnessed any of these incidents myself. One thing I have noticed at all the MSU home games this year is the messaging of the “Raise Your SHIELD” campaign. SHIELD stands for Sportsmanship-Honor-Integrity-Enthusiasm-Leadership-Dignity, and is the acronym used to remind fans (and students) to behave and remember that they are representing our school to the public – both to the attendees at the game and to the fans watching on television. This message is always followed by a note that home team fans should welcome our guests from other schools. I’ve always thought that this message was a nice, welcoming touch, and it seems to be well received by fans cheering on the visiting team. I’m not sure if other schools do this, but they should.

8. Your track record can impact your following.

Unfortunately, there are two types of fans: fans that are always going to cheer for your organization, and fans that will only cheer for your team when things are going well. When the 2012 football schedule was announced many people I know discussed the idea of going to Madison, Wisconsin, to see the Spartans play there. Fast forward to the middle of the season, and many of these people were suddenly unwilling to make the drive. They’d witnessed too many heart-breaking games and just didn’t want to see another one in person. Everyone still watched the game on television, but their willingness to go all-out in support of the team was slipping. There are even some fair-weather fans out there that shake their heads in disgust when a team is faltering. (I’m proud to say I can’t count any of my friends among this group.) I’m sure MSU recognizes that this season’s record has impacted its fan base, and they’ll have to do some careful message development to win back some of their fans. Lucky for us, we’ve been there before and we’ve always bounced back.

9. Reputation is invaluable.

In a reverse example to #5 (the Ohio State experience) above, there is also a benefit to a positive reputation (or at least a lack of a negative reputation.) At the MSU vs. Nebraska game I had my first experience with the Cornhusker crowd. Nebraska is a new addition to the Big Ten conference, and I’d never seen them play in person before. To set the scene: the upper deck seats are full, and once again there are many fans decked in red (although this time paired with white instead of grey). From what I could see, not many MSU fans in Spartan Stadium had an opinion of the Nebraska fans before the game, and no one seemed to think they would be difficult to sit near for three hours or more. Now, enter the protagonist: an obnoxious fan. He was guilty of the same heckling and jeering as was done in the game previous in the season (albeit with less swearing). This time, however, the crowd of fans (both home and away) discussed this fan in individual terms. It was more a “he’s behaving badly” comment than an “all their fans are horrible” critique. The difference, I believe, was the lack of negative reputation that the Nebraska fans brought in with them.

Images: Courtesy Flickr user RonAlmogFlickr user EllenM1 and Flickr user smemon.