Brian Ullmann, the University of Maryland's assistant… (Jeff Barker, Baltimore…)
COLLEGE PARK — The University of Maryland anticipated most fans would initially react "emotionally and negatively" to last year's decision to join the Big Ten Conference. So the school sought to influence the debate with a plan to lobby media pundits and plant positive comments into fan message boards.
Scores of documents and emails, obtained by The Baltimore Sun in response to a Public Information Act request, detail a public relations strategy that was as secret as the Big Ten negotiations themselves.
Maryland announced on Nov. 19, 2012, that it would depart the Atlantic Coast Conference after 60 years and join the Big Ten, effective in July 2014. It, as school officials predicted, led to fans expressing sadness and anger over losing popular ACC-related traditions such as facing rivals Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
The public relations campaign was meant to help turn the tide in favor of the move. It included hiring a corporate communications consultant to help shape the message and also working to prevent news of the negotiations from getting out before the move was imminent.
"So far, this is unfolding just as we expected," Brian Ullmann, the university's assistant vice president for marketing and communications, wrote in an email to deputy athletic director Nathan Pine on Nov. 18, one day after negotiations on the impending move were disclosed in the media. "We knew that in the absence of our messaging during this initial stage, most fans would react emotionally and negatively. That has occurred and clearly the message boards and comments sections skew heavily negative. Several of us placed comments on boards and media sites last night to help balance it out."
Ullmann also wrote that the school planned to "engage professional assistance in helping to drop positive messages into the blogs, comments and message board sites. I will arrange for this service today."
Many of the emails discussing the PR strategy copied top Maryland administrators such as president Wallace Loh and athletic director Kevin Anderson. The school routinely circulated emails chronicling and commenting on stories, blogs and tweets about the Big Ten move. Consultants also reached out to certain media members, either criticizing them for negative commentary or praising them for supporting the move.
Lee Zeidman, the corporate communications consultant who helped Maryland draft letters and talking points, said Wednesday that it is "standard operating procedure" in the business world to weigh in directly on message boards. "There are special PR agencies who work in the digital space who bombard blogs and newspaper sites where no one puts their name," Zeidman said.
Pine said Wednesday in an email response to the Baltimore Sun that the athletic department did not hire professionals to promote Maryland's case on websites. "We sought advice from many public relations professionals and received a number of suggestions. The Athletic Department did not engage in anything of that nature."
Zeidman, a Maryland graduate, said the school's public relations campaign should not be characterized as damage control.
"This was nowhere near the kind of corporate campaign where we plot out a strategy to protect the organization or sell an idea to shareholders or consumers. This was, 'How do you explain an incredible opportunity to take the university in a new direction, and you know it's going to upset a lot of people?'"
Zeidman, chief executive officer of New York-based Zeidman Corporate Communications Consulting, said he was compensated for his work "but nowhere near the usual. The place [Maryland] has a piece of my heart."
In the days before the Big Ten discussions were made public, Maryland and its consultants considered how to release the story.
"Scott Van Pelt is a powerful voice in the media and a loyal UMD grad," public relations consultant John Maroon wrote to a Maryland communications official before the story broke. "It would be in our best interest to let Van Pelt break the story and talk about all of the positives."
Van Pelt is an ESPN television and radio commentator who attended Maryland and remains involved with the university.
In an interview Wednesday, Maroon said his thinking was that Van Pelt had a "national platform" and could have helped introduce a conference move expected to produce "varying emotions."
News of Maryland's negotiations with the Big Ten was reported on ESPN.com under the bylines of several reporters, but not Van Pelt's.
"The consultants provided many suggestions, of which that [giving the story to Van Pelt] was one," Pine said in his email to The Sun on Wednesday. "We decided not to pursue it."
Van Pelt could not immediately be reached for comment.