COLLEGE PARK — The University of Maryland said Thursday that it paid $3,000 to a social media firm last year and directed it to correct any "inaccuracies" appearing on websites during the initially stormy debate over the school's decision to join the Big Ten Conference.
The university wanted to monitor the tone and provide any needed "corrections or clarifications as quickly as possible" on various sites, said Brian Ullmann, assistant vice president for marketing and communications at the university.
Ullmann was interviewed Thursday about the media and public relations campaign the university launched, with the aid of consultants, after anticipating an unfavorable reaction to the Big Ten among fans. Emails obtained Wednesday through a public records request by The Baltimore Sun provided an inside look at the campaign.
On Twitter and other forums, some fans and pundits expressed concern Thursday that Maryland had tried to steer the debate. They used words like "manipulate" and "spin."
Others said the school was making an organized case case for the move and correctly tapping into social media. "Any way you can get your side of the story out is a positive in my opinion," said Ben Kleinman, a 2008 Maryland graduate who works for Generation Z Marketing in New York City.
As the Big Ten debate was beginning nearly a year ago, Ullmann sent an email to deputy athletic director Nathan Pine saying that comments on message boards were skewing "heavily negative" against the Big Ten move. "Several of us placed comments on boards and media sites last night to help balance it out," Ullmann wrote in the email.
Asked about that email Thursday, Ullmann said he remembers a few Maryland staff members posting "corrections" last year in online comments sections.
At the time, the university was closely monitoring fan sentiment and paying particular attention to online polls about its decision to leave for the Big Ten in 2014 after 61 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The school sent out daily posts to athletic administrators and others summarizing media and fan leanings. "At this time there have been no overt threats or threatening language and sentiment has been mixed," one such email said the day the Big Ten negotiations were reported.
Ullmann said he does not recall what screen names were used by staff members in posts. Whatever names were used, he said, "there was no attempt to mislead" and no widespread posting as part of Maryland's campaign.
Maryland said it joined the Big Ten to provide the school's athletics program financial stability.
According to emails, a Maryland public relations consultant had suggested leaking the story about the secret Big Ten negotiations last November to ESPN commentator Scott Van Pelt, who attended the school in the 1980s.
Maryland said that did not happen. And Van Pelt said Thursday that he was as much in the dark as other journalists.
"I heard some rumblings that week, as many did," Van Pelt said. "What I found was dead ends."