College basketball is a multibillion-dollar industry that anoints a men's and women's champion every year. In March and April, a nation sits (or stands at a bar) enrapt at the games that unfold and produce the winner of each NCAA tournament. In 2004, University of Connecticut was victorious in both. Winning collegiate athletic championships bring national awareness that can rival any advertising, PR, or marketing campaign. With that in mind, PRWeek.com is proud to bring you a Q&A session with Scott Brohinsky, University of Connecticut's director of communications. Read on to find out how the university handles athlete graduation stastics, the realignment of the Big East and competing with well-regarded private university neighbors.
How exactly does winning both national championships affect your communications strategy for the following year? - GF, New York
Higher education is an extremely competitive marketplace [in all aspects], whether it is recruiting students or recruiting faculty. Those are both national and international competitions. We compete for private investment, in terms of private philanthropy. We compete for public investment, both at the state and federal level. We compete for grants. Everything is in a competitive environment and winning the championships helps to distinguish us and gives us tremendous visibility that we would not otherwise necessarily receive. It provides a platform to tell the full story of the institution.
Is the announcement of the championship going to be mentioned in other communications that aren't related to sports? - PRWeek.com
I don't think it will be that blatant. We're not going to use it where it doesn't relate. We will use it if it helps us to create an opportunity to market the institution. For instance, we have been making a concerted effort to use the success of the basketball programs to tell the institutional story to the media. We have been pitching stories that parallel the success of our basketball programs with the success of the institution itself. Public universities benefit when they can galvanize public attention and create an enthusiasm that is unique within their environment. Virtually every great public institution has a competitive athletic program: Virginia, Michigan, Texas, and North Carolina [are examples]. In New England, we have historically had a unique problem. We have a vast number of high-quality, private institutions in New England. In the Northeast and, most intensely in the New England, the public universities have always been the backup system. The general impressions people held was that if you wanted a high-quality education, you could go to the private schools. We have Yale in our state; we have Harvard next door. These are schools that are older than our nation. We have undertaken a concerted effort to change the understanding and perception of what public higher education is in New England. We have done that because of the successes at the university over the past ten years. We have used the successes of the basketball teams to move that. Starting in 1995, our state has made an unprecedented investment in the University of Connecticut. From 1995 through 2015, this state has now committed to this one institution [under the UConn 2000 program] $2.8 billion in infrastructure facility renewal. I don't believe that there is an investment in any public institution over 20 years that will compete with that. We use the success of our basketball program to give us visibility to highlight our academic needs. We use it to motivate our bases of support in the state, including our alumni, students, their parents and employees. The state initially granted us $1 billion in 1995, which coincided with the first national championship by our women's program. [The UConn 2000] program has been so successful that, in 2002, this state added an additional $1.3 billion and extended the program for ten years. In addition to that money, they given us funding to build a brand new regional campus in the middle of the state. They've built us a new football stadium and made a number of other facility enhancements. Since 1995, freshmen enrollment has increased 60%. Minority enrollment has increased by 74%. We've had a jump in SAT scores of 54 points. We have increased by 100% the number of students who applied for admission. Last year, we had more applicants from out of state than in state for the first time [in our history].
There was some negatively publicity surrounding a raucous post-victory celebration by students. How do you think the university handled it? - PRWeek.com
Connecticut is a very small state. At one time, we couldn't get the media out to cover the institution. Now the media is here every day. The media is going to cover what it is going to cover. Whether the story is good or bad, we have to maintain relationships with the media. We pride ourselves on being forthcoming with them. The [incident] was unfortunate. The outrageous behavior was actually conducted by a relative few, some of whom were not students. I think only half of the arrests were students. We have moved publicly in an extremely aggressive way by enforcing our conduct code, which we extended to cover incidents off-campus. We have communicated to the students before the event and after the event the actions we would take and have taken. I know there are students that have already been expelled and suspended. That's a heavy penalty, and deservedly so. We have worked with the UConn police, state police and local prosecutors. We expect that they will receive harsh treatment from the court system as well.
Do you see winning the championship as one of the best ways to get UConn's name out there? If so, is there any sort of contention between academia and sports when educational achievements may get less recognition? - PRWeek.com
There was a time where there was tension on the campus between the academic community and athletics. I would say that it is now virtually gone. The university has strategically used the success of our athletic programs and the achievements of our student athletes to benefit the academic and student affairs sides of the institution. The UConn 2000 program has almost exclusively benefited the student affairs and academic side of the house. Very little of the first $1 billion has gone towards athletics. If you saw this campus in 1995 and see it today, as our alums do, they are amazed at the quality of our facilities. We will have the best facilities of any public school in the country. We have a new chemistry building. We have a new business school building. We have new dorm complexes.
How do you balance "overexposure" for athletic success with what some perceive as a lack of exposure for academic accomplishment? What unique promotional opportunities did this success create? - JG, Birmingham, AL
The success of the athletics programs creates an opportunity to open a few doors to tell other stories. The notoriety gives you the opportunity to get into a conversation with people you would be pitching stories too. It's not going to translate into allowing you to talk about one of your experts in presidential campaigns. If you're strategic about these things, there are people in the media that are alums of your institution or of other Big East institutions, you can use it on an individual basis to open up doors that might not normally be open.
What specific communications/PR coaching are the players given in terms of how their demeanor, what they say to the media, and their behavior represents the school? - ET, New York
That is done at the team level. We don't interfere with that. In anticipation of winning both tournaments, we developed speaking points that documented the institutional story. We met with the athletic director and his aides. They shared those points with the coaches. We more work through the professional staff than we do with the students. The students have to speak in the own voice; they have to tell their own experience.
According to Newsweek, only 27% of UConn's male basketball players graduate, whereas over 60% of women's basketball players do. Is there more to these numbers than meets the eye, and what are you doing to fight the perception that academics take a backseat to athletics at your school? DQ, Washington DC
At any highly successful athletics program, you have a couple of things happen that statistics don't tell you. The cohort for the 27% was 15 students. Of the 15, four transferred and completed their education at those institutions. Those counted against the university. Four of them left college early to go into the NBA. It's actually two or three students who actually didn't graduate within that cohort. People are saying that the current situation unfairly represents graduation rates. That's just a statistical issue. The female athletes don't transfer as much as male athletes do, and they don't leave early to go into professional basketball. We have a fairly extensive academic support program for all of our student-athletes. The basketball players are treated like all of our student-athletes.
Then you have a student like Emeka Okafor who was arguably the best player in college basketball last year and will graduate a year early in order to reach the draft. Do you think the positive student-athletes are ignored? - KO, New York
He's the embodiment of the student-athlete who excels in his academic capacity, as well as his athletic capacity. He projects an image that is very helpful to us, as we recruit both student-athletes and students who are not athletes. In fact, we used him in our public service announcement and never identified him as a basketball player. His appearance and what we communicated were all about academics. That's a very strong image. You are not going to attract the type of student-athlete if your program isn't exceptional. They're looking for that.
The Big East has undergone some restructuring. Has that required any new communications on your part? Did you liase with communication directors from other Big East schools? - PRWeek.com
Within the Big East conference, there are marketing opportunities, but they are handled directly by the athletic department. Within in the context of all of the turmoil last summer and fall, we were on numerous conference calls together. We discussed communication strategies and made sure we had a coordinated message. I think we did a fairly good job of getting our objectives out there.
There are some schools that are reputed for their athletics, but decried for their academics. How do you avoid this situation with a successful athletic program? - PRWeek.com
It certain can [hurt you] if your athletic program is not fully integrated into your institution. I believe the approach of both our president and our athletic director has been exemplary in understanding that athletics is an element of this institution. It is not a unique element. We have used athletics as a platform to promote the academic side of the house.
What are the differences between running communications for a university that would differ from a corporation or government? - PRWeek.com
I work at a public institution, which is very different than a private institution. We have to be mindful of our customers, like any corporate communication program would. But we have a broader range of constituents. Our alums are a key group. State government is a key influencer and key supporter. We still derive a tremendous amount of resource from the Capitol and members of the general assembly. We just have to be mindful of the Connecticut taxpayers because they are our primary investor. We have to make sure that they understand and appreciate the returns on the state's investment.