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Sport organization websites enhance stakeholder relationships

This is an excerpt from Sport Public Relations, Second Edition by G. Clayton Stoldt, Stephen Dittmore, and Scott Branvold.


Explore the changing role of public relations in sport with Sport Public Relations, Second Edition.

Structuring Websites for Specific Stakeholders

In the course of this book several stakeholder groups are identified as primary targets for sport organizations in their public relations efforts. These publics are also important audiences for organizational websites. Constructing a website that accommodates the needs of constituents such as the media, community, consumers and fans, members, donors, and business partners and sponsors will help enhance these relationships.

Websites and Media Relations

One of the most important relationships that many sport organizations have is with the media, particularly high-profile spectator sport at the professional and college levels. Websites can help accommodate the needs of the media, especially through the provision of news and information. Members of the media rely on information in many forms, and spectator sport counts on the media for the exposure crucial to financial success. Teams, leagues, conferences, and governing bodies all maintain websites that are at least partially devoted to the kinds of information that the media require. In some cases team and league websites provide distinct sections accessible only to credentialed media. Major League Baseball serves the media with access to a centralized bank of reference information through MLBpressbox.com. Although much of the information could be accessed from a variety of sources, this centralized repository includes nearly everything that the league can provide for the media including links to a “press box” for each team. This material includes game schedules and game notes, lineups, statistics, press releases, media advisories, special events, rules, record books, league executive information, and downloadable audio, video, and photos of players. It offers one-stop shopping for information that the media need to do their job.

News releases that were once mailed in hard copy are now routinely transmitted and stored electronically. The same is true of media guides. The advantages of this technology are obvious and go well beyond the financial savings associated with reduced printing and mailing costs. Speed of communication, convenience of access, timeliness of information, and ease of updating provide added value. Even when the information is not actually sent to the media, it can be stored in a website that media members can access when they need it. The best way to serve the media relationship is to find out what information they want and in what form they want it. The more convenient and usable the information is, the more likely it is that media members will view the organization as a reliable partner.

A broad range of information is desired by the media, and the type of information varies by medium. As an example, the visual media will have more need of photos and video clips, whereas print media may want more statistical information, historical background, and feature material. Some media will want information that ties an organization to the media’s market area, such as the success of local athletes. Websites are capable of providing a wide range of material, and electronic transmission of this material to the media can be done efficiently when necessary. Modern sports are oriented toward statistics, and the current and historic statistical detail available is often extraordinary. Technology and the Internet have greatly simplified the media’s ability to access and manipulate statistical data and incorporate it into their work.

Most team sites have a wide range of information, including team rosters and individual player biographies, game schedules and results, coaching staff information, game and cumulative individual and team statistics, archived historical records, personnel updates (recruiting, trades, injuries, roster moves), facility information, staff directories, and visitor information.

Other content that may be beneficial to the media as well as other constituents involves links to other information sources such as league, conference, and opponent websites. Virtually all college and professional league websites contain links to the sites of each league member as well as links to a variety of other sources. Individual team websites often have links to the various leagues of which they are members, media outlets, sport-specific sites, booster groups, and relevant governing bodies. Some organizations have sites capable of providing live updates of games or events through services such as Gametracker and NeuLion. The NCAA typically has ongoing updates of championship events on its website. In some cases the sites also include access to live broadcasts (both audio and video) of games, and the distributing media become website partners in some respects. Information may also be available on the process used for distributing press credentials and the protocol for visiting teams who desire to broadcast events. Organizations such as the PGA provide the same types of content but also serve as the conduit to the individual tournaments that serve as the components for the PGA Tour.

Websites and Community Relations

Sport organizations commonly use their websites for community relations in several ways. The first and probably most common way is as a platform to promote the organization’s good works in the community. In some cases this information is among the more prominent elements of the site. Each of the teams in the four major professional sport leagues in the United States has a “Community” section on its website, and other major professional sport operations around the world often have some form of community connection such as a foundation. Photos and video clips are frequently used to display these community efforts. Organizations are likely to use their websites to promote and solicit support for their own (or their foundation’s) charitable initiatives or the good works of their affiliated coaches and athletes. A recent examination of the Pittsburgh Steelers website revealed 33 community outreach programs that included affiliations with established charitable organizations (e.g., Toys for Tots, Make-a-Wish) as well as internally developed programs (e.g., Heroes at Heinz Field, Art Rooney Scholarship Fund) (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2010).

Some sport organizations, particularly those in the high-profile entertainment segment, use their sites as tools for managing charitable requests. They provide information regarding the organization’s policies for donation requests and sometimes provide interactive tools that enable web users to submit their requests online.

The second way that sport organizations use their websites as a community relations tool is by promoting direct-contact initiatives. Organizational websites may promote speaking and other public appearances by the organization’s personnel, mascots, and cheerleaders, and special events such as caravans, open houses, exhibitions, and conferences. Organizations with personnel in high demand for public appearances may also use their sites to disseminate information regarding appearance policies and to provide mechanisms for submitting requests for personal appearances.

The third way that websites may be used to improve community relations is by offering services specifically designed to maintain or enhance a sense of community among stakeholders. For example, organizations that may not be prominent enough to secure broadcast distribution outlets may choose to webcast audio or video coverage of their events. This tool enables fans, alumni, and family and friends of competitors to enjoy events even if they are not able to attend.

Other organizations have taken community-building efforts to another level. For example, the NFL’s New York Giants have established a fan registry on their website (Migala, 2000a). Users enter their names and contact information into a database that other members of the registry may then view. Users can thus contact other Giants fans. The registry is of particular value to displaced Giants fans who are looking for other fans in their areas with whom they can watch Giants games. In addition, the registry provides the Giants with a database of people they can contact with other public relations and marketing messages. Social networking is a particularly valuable tool for community relations efforts. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace have profoundly altered the community-building landscape. Launched in 2004, Facebook reports 500 million active users with more than 25 billion pieces of content shared each month. More than 250,000 websites have integrated with the Facebook platform, and sport websites are no exception (Facebook, 2010). Most sport organizations of any kind (teams, leagues, retailers, health and fitness clubs, and so on) have a social networking presence that allows fans and patrons to connect with the organization and each other. Monmouth University’s athletics department has developed a social media hub on its website that provides a social media directory for each of the teams (Monmouth University Athletics, 2011).This tool does pose some interesting issues as organizations develop and manage these social web platforms. Dellarocas (2010) suggested that successfully harnessing these social communities depends on establishing a reputation built on attracting the right people and content that fits the organization’s vision for the site. Sport organizations are only beginning to tap into the potential these tools have to nurture the relationships fundamental to the practice of public relations.

As noted, sport organizations handle the community relations aspects of their websites in different ways. The following material briefly profiles the community relations content found on the sites of three prominent but diverse sport organizations. (Because the organizations update their websites frequently, the exact content of the current sites may be slightly different from the descriptions that follow.)

  • San Antonio Spurs (www.nba.com/spurs):The Spurs list a community section among the seven menu options along the top banner of their website. The community section of the site contains eight parts. The first is a news section that provides information regarding the charitable activities that the organization and its members support, including information about civic awards given to Spurs’ players. The second is a section about the foundation that profiles the organization’s affiliated 501(c)(3) charitable activities. It includes a description of the foundation’s mission, its most prominent activities, and its significant accomplishments. Also included is information regarding the team’s donation and appearance policies. The third section is a grants page that provides details of the money that the Spurs Foundation contributes to Texas charities. The fourth is a teacher and parent zone that details the organization’s initiatives in support of educational achievement and character development. Other segments deal with basketball camps, events, and fund-raisers and a “How can I help?” section.
  • 24-Hour Fitness (www.24hourfitness.com):One of the eight menu options at the top of the organization’s home page is a community component that contains a people section in which customers tell their fitness stories and a section on resource links that serves as an educational service. Information regarding the organization’s charitable initiatives can be found through descriptions of support for programs dealing with building playgrounds, low-income school fitness activities, and the V Foundation. It also provides healthy recipes and documents affiliations with the Biggest Loser television program and Weight Watchers.
  • Nike (www.nike.com): Armed with a diverse array of web pages that showcase its products in multiple languages, Nike also features a section that details aspects of its business operation. A section of the site titled “Nike Responsibility” includes information regarding environmental and sustainability practices, profiles of community investment programs such as the Nike School Innovation Fund, information on diversity initiatives through the Nike Foundation, facts regarding labor practices, reports about community involvement and corporate responsibility, and information regarding Nike’s corporate governance practices. The site also contains a link to ninemillion.org, an agency of the United Nations Refugee Agency that is supported by Nike.

Websites and Consumer Relations

The web has become a hub for e-commerce, and sport organizations have certainly capitalized on this capability. Most team and league websites contain numerous opportunities to purchase anything from tickets to team merchandise. Subscription options on many sites have additional premium material such as “insider information” or opportunities to purchase broadcast packages. The sidebar titled Websites Lay Foundation for Revenue Generation written by Mike Ross discusses the importance of the Internet as a mechanism for increasing exposure, interaction, and a sense of community.

Just as public relations can supplement marketing to the traditional consumer, it can play a role in developing relationships with e-consumers. Many of the elements that help produce satisfied customers in conventional markets also apply to the electronic marketplace. Customers want convenience, reliable service, and good value, and any vendor who can deliver that is off to a good start.

But that is only the beginning. In e-commerce, finding and evaluating alternatives is only a click away, and the hassle of fighting traffic to get to another store to compare products and prices has been eliminated. This aspect adds to the challenge of developing customer loyalty. Although e-shopping removes many of the inconveniences of traditional shopping, it faces many of the same challenges as catalog shopping, including speed of delivery, order accuracy, return policies, and convenience of return. Commonly employed service strategies include free shipping for orders greater than a certain amount, expedited shipping options, package tracking, gift service, responsive complaint services, fair return policies, and promptly processed returns. A complete explanation of product features can also help customers make decisions. Professional teams and leagues and some college athletics programs now offer a web-based ticket exchange or ticket resale service for fans who may want to buy or sell tickets in the secondary market. Although such a service will produce some revenue, its main purpose may be to ensure a level of security and confidence among consumers that may not exist in the scalper’s market. Another concern is the level of security and privacy of personal information that is necessary in the exchange process. Customers need to be reassured that the information they are providing (e.g., credit card number, contact information) will be protected and used only as authorized. The efforts to develop loyalty among online shoppers should be continuous and focus on the highest value customers. Soliciting customer feedback is a standard part of most websites and is the very least that should be done in seeking customer input. The better the relationship is with the consumer, the more the consumer will want to provide information
that can be used to enhance satisfaction (Smith, 2000).

Websites and Employee Relations

As will be discussed in chapter 13, employees make up an important internal public that is at times overlooked in public relations efforts. One method for communicating with and fostering interaction among employees is through an internal website, commonly referred to as the intranet. An intranet is a private network accessible only to employees that facilitates the dissemination and exchange of information (Stoddart, 2001). An intranet can provide a variety of benefits to an organization, its employees, and other constituencies that may be given access. The intranet is an information-sharing tool that can be used to enhance productivity by allowing information to be exchanged more quickly and efficiently. Many segments of the organization have specific uses for the intranet, particularly as it relates to sharing information and data across departments. An athletics department might need to share facility scheduling information among various units within the program. Sales and marketing can access market research information, customer service can gain entry into a client information database, and accounting and finance can quickly access payroll information. Although one driving force for intranet use is logistical efficiency, public relations applications are present as well. Human resources can use the intranet in a variety of ways to enhance and expedite intraorganizational communications. Possible examples include newsletters, directories, job listings, personalized employee web pages, benefits information, employee handbooks, events calendars, and employee surveys (Intranet Roadmap, 2005). Effective intranet use may help the organization become less compartmentalized and promote a more open operational environment that can enhance communication and create a more collaborative atmosphere.

The key to a successful intranet is its content. It must be relevant, accessible, available in a timely manner, and updated regularly. Content should be user driven, which means that the design of an intranet site must consider the priorities, needs, and preferences of the users (Garrett, 1996).

Websites and Donor Relations

The importance of fund-raising for many sport organizations is addressed in chapter 14. For now, suffice it to say that technological advances have provided valuable tools to assist in development efforts. Hart (2002) suggested that in addition to raising money, the Internet can be used to improve donor relationships, fund-raising efficiency, and communication with constituents. The sidebar titled 10 Rules of ePhilanthropy Every Nonprofit Must Know summarizes some basic considerations for using the Internet in fund-raising.

Although a website may serve as a center for information and the host for online donations, donor relationships can be nurtured through a variety of electronic communications options. E-mail can be used in direct solicitation, but its real public relations value is its contribution to maintaining a communication link with donors. E-mail allows efficient and inexpensive communication with large groups of constituents. It provides an opportunity for dialogue rather than one-way communication and can direct a tailored and targeted message to supporters (Olsen, Keevers, Paul, & Covington, 2001). These contacts should be made only with permission to avoid their being perceived as spam, which will impair effectiveness. E-mail can also be passed from initial recipients to many others. This practice, known as viral marketing, can be effective in expanding the donor base because it uses existing donors as promoters of the cause (Hart, 2002).

Although the term viral may have a negative connotation, it is simply the electronic version of word-of-mouth marketing. Wilson (2000) defined viral marketing as “any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.” In the context of fund-raising, viral marketing attempts to capitalize on existing networks of donors to grow the donor base. Having a good cause, presenting it in the right way, and providing attractive incentives will encourage existing donors to pass along the fund-raising appeal to potential donors. Having donors forward the funding-raising appeal personalizes the message for recipients and makes it appear less like spam, which allows organizations to reach prospects to which they have little direct access in a way that has considerable influence.

The Network for Good (www.fundraising123.org) has compiled an extensive list of resources that discuss various aspects of fund-raising, including how to develop websites and integrate social networking as part of an integrated communication and fund-raising strategy. A website can serve as an information hub and be a communication link for a much wider audience. A website can also keep donors and prospective donors informed about an organization’s mission and needs, the status of fund-raising efforts, and the way in which the money raised is being used.

Most college athletics websites contain a link to their booster or support organizations. The content includes justification for considering making a contribution, an outline of rewards associated with certain donation levels, and an opportunity to join the booster group. In some cases it allows direct online donations or provides links to the institutional fund-raising arm. Often the site provides information about support group events and photos of past booster group occasions.

Blogging

One Internet trend gaining popularity is blogging. Technorati, a blog search engine, indexes thousands of sport-related blogs. What began as the posting of unedited journals or diaries has evolved into a sophisticated and involved process. Blogs have become more interactive, frequently including the opportunity for comment and discussion and embedding links to related sites and information.

The blogging trend presents opportunities and concerns for sport organizations. One type of blogging involves pieces written by members of the organization or its constituents that provide behind-the-scenes or personal insights about various aspects of the operation. This internal form of blogging housed on organizational websites gives the organization tight editorial control over content. As an example, the NBA’s website features nearly 20 blogs from players, league insiders, and coaches. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, uses a blog to voice opinions on a variety of issues and to solicit feedback from fans (King, 2005).

Another form of blogging involves blog sites developed by people outside the organization. Sport fuels passion that fans like to share. Blogs have become a frequent outlet for these exchanges. In some respects they have become the Internet version of sports talk radio. A 2011 check on SportsBlogs.org revealed over 2,500 blogs related to major league baseball alone. One obvious concern about these sites is that they are largely outside the control of the sport organizations. They are normally written from the viewpoint of the fan, which brings with it bias that may raise issues of accuracy and credibility (Terdiman, 2005).

Monitoring the information and discourse on these sites can be useful in gauging consumer attitudes and opinions. Sport organizations may also be able to capitalize on the interactive nature of blogs to enhance relationships. But they will also need to confront the problems that sometimes come with rapid and uncontrolled information dissemination. Both personal blogs and topical blogs can pose problems. Employees who write in their personal blogs about their jobs may say more than is appropriate about the workplace environment. Topical blogs are often editorial in nature, and entries are typically quite opinionated. The desire to advance personal agendas or biases may result in spreading damaging rumors that can gather momentum when ignored.


Read more from Sport Public Relations, Second Edition by G. Clayton Stoldt, Stephen Dittmore, and Scott Branvold.



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