Overnight Sensations

The Olympic spotlight shines brightly … in good and bad times.  A trio of media experts was asked to help Olympians and other athletes manage their brands.

By Richard LeComte and Jamon Smith
Photos by Jeff Hanson 

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Billings’ portion of the class focused on athlete’s online branding.

Before the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Simone Biles was not a household name. With the spotlight on her, she impressed the world with her outstanding gymnastics moves and her four gold medals. Many Olympic athletes became overnight sensations for their feats in the water or on the mats, tracks and fields.

So, what comes after Rio? How do they turn their success into a marketable image? They need a personal brand. And, three University of Alabama media professors are helping.

To teach Olympic athletes how to manage their public image, the International Olympic Committee teamed with Athletic Learning Gateway in London to create an online class to teach current and former athletes how to build their personal brands.

The English company creates online academic lecture videos featuring professionals from around the world to help current and former Olympic athletes navigate their new world.

In February, they contacted Dr. Andrew Billings, one of the aforementioned media professors, and requested his involvement.

“The Athlete Learning Gateway asked me if I was willing to do these online learning modules and said they wanted more diverse presenters,” Billings says. “They asked me did I know anyone, and immediately I thought of my fellow UA sports media professors in CIS — Dr. Kim Bissell,  and Dr. Kenon Brown.

“We came up with a design where each of us would do a solo presentation, and I wrote the introduction. We shot it here at the UA Digital Media Center in May. The Athlete Learning Gateway edited it and created quizzes for the course, which launched in July.”

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The class to teach Olympic athletes how to manage their public image was shot in UA’s Digital Media Center.

The free online class, “Sports Media – How to Build Your Athlete Brand,” teaches athletes about media perception, media engagement, image building and, if necessary, image repair.

Billings focuses on the online branding aspect of the class; Bissell teaches how to interact with the media in the traditional form through interviews with reporters; and Brown concentrates on image restoration — how to handle a crisis when things go awry.

“The class is all about athletes’ brands – who you are, who you want to be and who the public thinks you are and wants you to be,” Billings says. “A famous Boston University study found that 92 percent of what you think of a person is determined in the first 30 seconds. Fifty-five percent is determined before you say a word – how you’re dressed, how comfortable you feel in your own skin, how credible you seem. Another 37 percent is determined in those initial words – your volume, pitch, confidence, vocabulary.”

In his module, Billings stresses building and managing an athlete’s brand online. He drives home such basics as managing your image online and grabbing your domain name while it’s still available, even before you head to the Games.

“There are two parts to your brand identity — the you that existed online before you became an Olympian and then afterward,” Billings said. “Before, what you might have posted that may be taken the wrong way by media or taken out of context — or that you wish you had never said to begin with. I also give advice on securing domain names–is it OK to have other people posting and Tweeting things for you? Is that an optimal or less than optimal idea?”

Billings also encourages athletes to let their true selves shine through in social media – authenticity is the key. If an athlete is comfortable with lots of images, posts and attention, then fine. If not, then stay off some media. But, if an athlete does engage in social media, be sure to be social – score points by interacting with fans.

“If you don’t post pictures of your life, don’t start an Instagram account,” he says.  “The last thing people want is another inactive Instagram account to follow. Not having one is better than having some fake, meager platform. If all you do is Facebook then all you do is Facebook, and that’s OK. Re-tweeting a picture you took with a fan could mean the world with these people. There’s some sort of interactivity and connection that you’ve made with social media.”

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In the online class, Bissell teaches athletes how to interact with traditional media.

Bissell focuses on briefing athletes about traditional media. Unlike social media, which allows athletes to address fans directly, traditional media – newspapers, television or radio – involve a journalist asking questions and shaping the message. Sometimes it’s not enough for athletes to win to draw media coverage: Traditional media require a compelling story, or “hook,” often about an unusual family situation or an obstacle to overcome.

“There was a runner named Kate Grace who won the Olympic Trials and qualified for the 800 meter finals in Rio,” Bissell says. “She’s Yale grad and was a great collegiate runner. Despite her success in the last year on the track, what the media focused on was her mother, who was known for a series of aerobics videos in the late 1980s. Many of the stories lead with her famous mother rather than the PRs she was setting on the track.”

The media used Kate Grace’s mother as the angle for a story on Kate as a runner.

Still, when traditional journalists post their stories, they become part of the social media scene as much as Facebook messages or Twitter posts, and they can be valuable to augmenting an athlete’s brand, Bissell says. Traditional media also can offer an athlete unjustly maligned in social media a chance to tell her story to a sympathetic reporter or television host.

“Athletes today probably don’t have much experience with the traditional or legacy media,” Bissell says. “The stories are probably already out there on social media, but the traditional media outlets still put out stories about events and can provide a lot more detail than what you get in 120 characters.”

Brown researches public-relations strategies for athletes who get in trouble. In his talk, he stresses how athletes need to show genuine feeling and remorse in responding to whatever happened – even if they can’t take total responsibility for issues of liability.

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By following Brown’s guidance, athletes can learn how to restore their image if things go awry.

“Truth, transparency and honesty are really important,” he says. “If you aren’t forthcoming with the truth, somebody else will be forthcoming with the truth. So, you need to get your version of the story out and get it out quickly. If you don’t get your side out as quickly as possible, two or three other versions of the story are going to be out. So, both accuracy and timeliness are keys.”

Sometimes an athlete, like U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, can inadvertently set off a controversy in the Twitterverse – when she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the National Anthem. A few bloggers were irate, and their tweets found their way into traditional media. Brown says a statement of regret – acknowledging some people may be offended while not saying the action was wrong in the first place – is the best way to go.

“Apologies are very powerful as well, and there’s a way to apologize without accepting blame,” he said. “Gabby Douglas didn’t have anything to apologize for, but she did express regret. She apologized to anybody she offended,” he says. “She didn’t necessarily say, ‘this is my fault.’ She didn’t take the blame. She said, ‘if I offended you with my actions, I apologize.’ I think that’s the right course of action there.”

The class provided these mass communications professors an opportunity to bring their research into a practical arena, where their work might help an Olympic athlete navigate the 24/7 world of media.

And the class isn’t just for athletes — anyone can sign up to view it online, and Brown says some college classes will be using them for instruction.

“I was really able to incorporate my research in a more applied way,” Brown says. “I took my findings from my research and thought about what does this mean to athletes who are trying to repair their images. It’s very easy for me to translate that – and a lot of fun, because you get to present the research in a way that really matters to them.”

Billings is director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication and the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting, Bissell is Southern Progress Corp. Professor of Journalism and associate dean for research, and Brown is assistant professor in advertising and public relations, all within UA’s College of Communication and Information Sciences.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.