No brand is an island: RFRA controversy at March Madness shows traditional comms can't silence real-time conversation

Every April, March Madness comes to its conclusion with the national championship basketball game. This year’s game had a familiar feel: an unlikely underdog (Wisconsin) unseated the #1 seed (Kentucky). Duke made it all the way. And the NCAA is facing a bit of controversy.

Rihanna spoke out against RFRA at March Madness

What’s unusual about this year is the flavor of the NCAA controversy: it doesn’t have anything to do with the NCAA. Nothing on sanctions, academic misconduct, NCAA fatcats or players not having enough food. This year, the NCAA’s biggest crisis communications challenge has to do with its zip code.

Earned media can cost us

Indiana’s religious freedom law (RFRA) has a lot of people upset – and the NCAA’s headquarters are in Indianapolis, as is the championship game. Monitoring the conversation around this final game, it’s clear that the NCAA can’t escape the controversy of a law that many see as a thinly veiled excuse to discriminate against the LGBT community. We saw a lot of trending conversations around the game that one normally wouldn’t expect to see in discussions of a college basketball game: LGBT, religion, and Rihanna.

Yes, Rihanna.

What would normally have been a dream for Indiana – Rihanna debuting a new song live at the Final Four match – became a potential reputation nightmare when she decried the law, leading the crowd in a chant of “F#$K that sh*t!” You can find the video on Twitter; nothing goes viral like an outraged celebrity using an unlikely stage to send a political message.

Several other celebrities and sports figures have spoken out as well. Keith Olbermann called out the NCAA, noting that they should move both the Final Four games and their headquarters. That message, too, is still being well amplified via social channels.

The reflected infamy of Indiana can be clearly seen in the sentiment analysis around the NCAA final pre-game chatter. What would usually be an almost entirely neutral or positive discussion pattern is far from it:

Sentiment Analysis for the NCAA March 31 – Apr 6th:

It’s an interesting challenge to find your brand caught in the crossfire of someone else’s, simply because of geographic proximity. When a celebrity uses your court to deliver a public protest, you’re forced to take a position. And in today’s social culture, the response timing, tone, and channels are as important as the content.

The NCAA made a statement on 2 April, after the Indiana legislature announced that it would add language to the bill to prevent discrimination. “NCAA core values call for an environment that is inclusive and non-discriminatory for our student-athletes, membership, fans, staff and their families. We look forward to the amended bill being passed quickly and signed into law expeditiously by the governor.” Jason Collins, who’s both a professional basketball figure and an LGBT activist, spoke out to applaud the NCAA for that statement. But was it enough to stop the conversation – or even turn the tide? Our sentiment analysis tells us that it was not.

The double-edged sword of real-time message amplification and influence is one that we all face in today’s dynamic communications landscape.

Everyone shares control of our narrative

Building your story in the context of the millions of stories being shared in real-time is today’s version of influence. We need to know who’s saying what, where, when, and why, and how the narrative is growing and changing – even by the hour. The NCAA may have chosen to keep their response crisp and tight – but the story lived on for days through other social media voices.

In this case, Rihanna’s 43.5 million Twitter followers didn’t necessarily see her critique of RFHA; the singer simply thanked Indiana on her feed. But it didn’t die there: Rolling Stone gave their readership and 4.5 million Twitter followers an article specifically about Rihanna’s chant and the various celebrities opposing RFRA at the Final Four.

Did the NCAA miss an opportunity? The celebrity led outcry was really just an attempt to engage them in the conversation. Its canned statement was a throwback to a time when we communications professionals still had control of the message. With so much conversation splintering in so many directions, a more authentic, multi-channel approach may have been more effective. And even if this was a story they did not choose to tell, they could have taken control of the narrative and turned it to their favor.

Of course Indiana’s tarnish won’t stick to the NCAA forever. People have short attention spans. The tournament is over, and the RFRA controversy will eventually be replaced by other headlines. But scripted words alone weren’t enough to remove them from the conversation. In today’s world, our brand is no longer a script – we have to engage.

Valerie Fawzi is CMO of Meltwater

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