University of Michigan's Catfishing of Its Own Athletes Under Scrutiny

Chris Syme Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Posted on February 2nd 2013

University of Michigan's Catfishing of Its Own Athletes Under Scrutiny

The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Or is it just a spin on the truth? When University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon went before a crowd on Friday and explained how the athletic department had hired a media relations firm to teach their student athletes a lesson by “catfishing” some of them online, he probably didn’t think through the ramifications of how this type of social media training might be perceived by the public.

Later that same afternoon, associate athletic director Dave Ablauf issued a statement clarifying his boss’ statements. Ablauf, who is head of the department’s media relations, talked about the original intent of hiring the PR firm to catfish the student athletes.

"We use it as an educational process," Ablauf said. "It wasn't catfishing. It's being misconstrued. They didn't go to that extent (like Te'o's situation). There was no interaction like a catfish. They weren't going down that path. This wasn't us trying to trick anyone."

Earlier in the day, it was revealed by various news stories that members of a media relations firm used an attractive female staffer to go online and try to forge relationships with some of the Michigan athletesLater, at a team meeting, some of their  interactions (and the female media staffer) were revealed. Using a person, real or imaginary, to try and forge a fake relationship online looks like trickery to the public.

Brandon mentioned that some of the athlete’s responses to the woman online were inappropriate. But wasn’t that the intent of the exercise—to create a situation where student-athletes would be tempted to act inappropriately? Are the student-athletes to blame for their solicited responses? With a little digging, a media relations firm could probably find some genuine examples of Michigan student-athletes acting inappropriately on Twitter to use in their training. It's understandable that the public finds something disturbing about this “method” of social media training.

There were no details given about the rest of the training Michigan used so it is inappropriate to make a judgment on their whole process. However, it should be noted that the practice of teaching by shame and humiliation should only be part the equation, if used at all. Shame and fear alone are not good motivators for learning. Schools would be wise to take a page from the University of Washington playbook and teach athletes to build their own brand with the support of the school.

Athletic departments are panicking, and they needn’t be. There are many firms out there, including ours, that have a program that teaches student-athletes how to develop a personal brand on social media and protect their privacy. Using trickery and humiliation may produce short term success, but it will not produce a lasting understanding of how to use social media to build a positive personal brand. There is a difference between educating these kids and managing them. Educating them is a longer process, an investment with positive rewards.  Hopefully, we will see more universities taking their duty to educate student-athletes seriously and start reproducing the kind of model that the University of Washington has created.


Chris Syme

Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Chris Syme's latest book, Practice Safe Social, is a leading resource on how to use social media responsibly. Her agency, CKSyme Media Group specializes in crisis and reputation communications, training, and social media services. See her website at Follow her on Twitter @cksyme


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