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A PR Person's How-To Guide For Spinning College Sports

Wichita State's PR team has taken every opportunity to benefit from the media crush around the school's unexpected run to the Final Four.
Streeter Lecka
Getty Images
Wichita State's PR team has taken every opportunity to benefit from the media crush around the school's unexpected run to the Final Four.

The Final Four games at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament on Saturday were just the latest in a week that's been eventful — and unpredictable.

Bettina Cornwell, a marketing expert at the University of Oregon, says universities and colleges like to be ready with their public relations strategies. But sometimes you just can't plan for sports.

How To Be Cinderella

Even if they were being optimistic, the public relations gurus at Wichita State were probably not planning for this — the Shockers do not frequent Final Four. But that's OK, Cornwell says. The strategy for Cinderella is simple: Just say yes.

Wichita State's players and head coach Gregg Marshall have been on every page, screen and radio in the country. They might be overloaded, but the opportunity is just too big to pass up. Cornwell points to case studies like Butler University, which made back-to-back appearances in the title game in 2010 and 2011.

"We can see from history that Butler did cash in on it," she says.

Cornwell says experts estimate that in 2011 Butler received $500 million in media coverage, PR and value from its experience in the Final Four. That's from just one trip to the semifinals.

If this is all sounding familiar, though, you're just one of many people experiencing a little Cinderella fatigue. Wichita State is just the latest lady to crash the ball, and there have been many in recent years. The gravy train might have left the station.

"The Cinderella phenomena becomes less Cinderella-like when it happens many times," Cornwell says. "It isn't as surprising when it continues to happen."

A Trickier Situation

No PR department could have planned for the gruesome injury to sophomore Kevin Ware of Louisville during a game against Duke last week. His tibia fracture was so horrific that CBS opted not to replay it more than once.

But Cornwell points out that the injured Ware has been incredibly positive so far. On Wednesday night, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman — where he read off the "Top Ten Thoughts Going Through Kevin Ware's Mind" when his leg broke.

The University of Louisville is in a trickier situation. The injury reignited media conversation about who should pay for injured athletes' medical care. Often, small schools are unable to afford the payments, and end up revoking the injured player's scholarship.

But the Cardinals have the nation's most profitable basketball program. So the right move was easy to make. A Louisville official confirmed this week that the university would foot the tab for any unpaid bills for Ware's surgery and recovery.

Double Damage Control

A damning video of former Rutgers coach Mike Rice was released by ESPN earlier this week. The video depicts the coach both physically and verbally abusing players, shouting slurs at them and handling them roughly. Rutgers fired Rice on Wednesday.

But it turns out that Rutgers President Robert Barchi knew about the tape in November, but decided to just suspend the coach. That's caused a double backlash against Rutgers, Cornwell says. People aren't just disgusted with the coach — they're disgusted with the school, too.

"The mass amount of PR literature that talks about crisis intervention and how you deal with these things suggests you need an immediate response," she says. "There was an immediate response — in terms of suspension. But the question is: Did that response match what people believe should happen, which would be immediately taking action against the coach."

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