UT Longhorn coaching changes showcase winning communications strategy

Let me say right up front, I have no interest in football at any level. I don’t care which conference you think the best, who’s up for the Heisman, or which team deserves to go to a bowl game. But, living in the ATX media market, the coverage of Mack Brown stepping down and the hiring of Charles Strong as head football coach is inescapable. And I have to say, I do think the Comms team supporting the University of Texas board of regents has done a fantastic job in communicating the CEO transition for the football program. Corporate communication professionals, take note, this is how it is done.

First, they seeded the fan base (customers) with the question of whether the timing was right for a new CEO.  A word whispered in the right reporter’s ear, a hint here, a rumor there, a trial balloon, just to see how the customers would react – then sit back and watch the coverage. Call it a focus group with unsuspecting participants.  Is this Mack’s last season? Is it time for a change?  While these same questions had surfaced for the past several seasons, this year was different in that they found a generally receptive audience, even among those loyal to Coach Brown. The next step, then, was to listen to the customer comments in the news coverage and find the themes that were most prominent.

Apparently, those themes were:

box logo Mack Brown has done a great job, but it is time for new energy and new ideas

box logo A strong coach is needed to address team behavior off the field and in the classroom

box logo UT fans expect and deserve a team that competes for the national championship every year

With this messaging, all that was left was to plan the campaign. Watching it unfold, it seemed to me they followed a simple but effective strategy.

First, acknowledge and address the customer base that may be resistant to change – those who are strong supporters of Coach Brown – and be sure not to alienate them.  Thus we saw nearly every sound-bite began something like:  “Coach Brown has done an amazing job. We have the utmost respect for Coach Brown.  Coach Brown is a class act.”  This was then frequently followed by his overall win/loss statistics and possibly a personal anecdote from a player or school official attesting to Coach Brown’s integrity and decency.

Next, make the case for why a new coach is needed – his win/loss record over the past four years, his bowl record, team discipline with the number of players arrested, coaching staff in relationships with students, etc.  All point to a struggling program and a need for change.

Third, focus on meeting customer expectations and be sure to mention Coach Brown’s salary and contract as often as possible. As the writing on the wall became evident, Coach Brown showed that he truly was a team player and even assumed the role of communicating this last key talking point in his farewell press conference. He clearly stated that his program helped set the expectations of fans, and that they deserved a program that could deliver on those expectations.  In doing so, he gave permission to his loyal supporters to transfer their support to the new head coach.

Last, as Coach Strong was announced, did you notice how he also showed respect for Mack Brown and the UT tradition.  Again, be sure not to alienate the customer base and do your best to earn their goodwill. Also noteworthy is the fact that most of his comments are related to addressing team discipline – not offense or defense  – team discipline, making “We’re going to win on and off the field” type of statements and emphasizing scholastic achievement.  Thus Coach Strong addresses the theme voiced early on by the fan base and establishes his brand – success on and off the field.

I expect the communications team has planned a year-long campaign now for coach Strong and look forward to the rolling thunder of media coverage as each new coach joins his team, each time Strong makes a speech, each new recruit signs with UT, each time a player makes an A on a test,  etc.  As I said before, I don’t follow football, but I can tell you the communications team at UT is putting up some impressive points.

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