Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fifth Summit on Communication and Sport: Recap and Research Review

The latest rumor, the latest fumbled play, the latest major trade; when it happens in sports, it’s likely to happen via social media. As fans become professional bloggers and Twitter becomes a source for receiving to-the-minute news, sports organizations quickly have to adapt to changing pressures in sports communication. These and other topics were explored at this weekend’s Fifth Summit on Communication and Sport, hosted by Bradley University.

Penn State doctoral students Brett Sherrick and Melanie Formentin were among the presenters discussing everything from uses of social media, to framing of athletes and league, to critical analysis of sport cultures.

On behalf of the Curley Center and co-authors Steve Bien-Aime and Marie Hardin, Sherrick presented the results of the study “High school athletes: How are they covered?” As part of an ongoing series of projects examining the extent and impact of social media-based and traditional coverage of high school athletes, this study found that high school sports reporters frame these athletes as recruits. In general, reporters remove athletes from the academic setting, are reluctant to describe athletes in negative terms, and rarely include the athletes’ voices through direct questions.

Formentin, a second-year doctoral student, presented her work about the NFL lockout: “For all our fans who dig this game: Communication strategies during the NFL lockout.” Using critical discourse analysis and crisis communication theories to guide her analysis, she found that fans were the dominant theme of league and player association messages at the height of the lockout. Of particular interest was the consistent use of “empty” messages that were intended to appease fans while simultaneously avoiding significant discussion about the critical issues associated with a lockout.

Among the findings were that the league altered the availability of lockout-related information in the months following the dispute. Although data collection began during the lockout, it was not completed until a few months after the crisis had abated. At the time of the lockout, numerous articles and press releases were available examining a variety of issues related to the ongoing collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. Following the lockout, an “NFL Lockout” topic page was made available, but an analysis of articles revealed that negative coverage had been excluded from the list of stories. Instead, headlines featured news such as Ochocino playing soccer, travel directors preparing for no season, and players receiving permission to attend Kenny Chesney concerts. Very few articles remained detailing actual negotiation or bargaining news that occurred during the lockout. On the other hand, a search for “NFLPA” returned articles that highlighted some of the more negative aspects of the lockout such as the PA’s decertification and the crisis’ ongoing progress: players “save money and prepare for lockout”; “Union brings different in tone, opinion to CBA discussions”; “agents don’t expect immediate progress on negotiations.”

These changes were telling because they spoke directly to the crisis communication strategies used by the NFL during the lockout. Particularly, they exemplified how the league made attempts to downplay negative information while pointing blame toward the players—blame being a crisis response strategy typically reserved for victims in a crisis. More telling was that these strategies were framed within “empty” messages directed toward fans.

Early in the lockout, NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash was quoted saying: “We want the fans to know that we’re trying… and if we don’t get it done, we know what we’ll have let them down.” A statement from the NFL also stated: “Our message to the fans is this: We know that you are not interested in any disruption to your enjoyment of the NFL. … We have great respect for the fans.” Quotes such as these exemplified how the league maintained consistent communication with fans, but did so in a detached and hollow way.

Critical discourse analysis suggests reading these quotes not only to understand which voice is privileged in a situation, but also to understand what messages are not being delivered. Here, league attempts to control the mood about the lockout were based on accommodative messages—a crisis response strategy that focuses on accepting some level of responsibility without outright apologizing. Further, the quotes show how the league avoided addressing negative issues about the lockout. Instead of drawing attention to the topics being debated (revenue sharing, player safety) or discussing the trickle-down effects (employee layoffs, financial impacts on cities), the NFL spoke about getting “it” done and preventing “disruptions to [fan] enjoyment."

By addressing the lockout in nominalized terms and focusing on fan consumption of sport, the severity and impact of the crisis is turned into something harmless and the discussion of actual stakes are avoided. Fans were never represented via direct quotes, showing the league exercised power through a one-way relationship designed to build a sense of consensus about lockout related issues: The lockout was bad and would negatively impact fans, but the league was intent on making efforts to do what was best for fans. This strategy bucks suggestions made in crisis communication literature, which suggest organizations should take responsibility when they have caused a crisis, and should make genuine attempts to provide stakeholders with relevant and critical information as it becomes available. Instead, the NFL attempted to deflect blame for the crisis by avoiding discussions about primary issues and appeasing fans through one-way messages void of information.- Melanie Formentin