Behind the scenes with Clemson Social Media

By Karen Freberg

This past weekend I visited Clemson University and had the ultimate social media and sports experience: Meeting and learning from the social media team behind Clemson Athletics.

This social media team is legendary in the field. When you think of innovative storytellers and cutting edge strategies for creating content, the first name that comes up is Clemson. Their work is unparalleled compared to other teams and brands.

The Clemson Athletics Team needs to be in the same conversation as Google and Apple in many ways. Both of these brands focus on what products and services they can create for their customers that they didn’t know they needed or wanted. Clemson Athletics creates engaging visual content and stories fans didn’t know they wanted but are absolutely craving for.

Clemson Athletics has also been extremely innovative with their partnerships. For example, their social media content has been recognized across the industries and their partnership with Adobe has made the rounds in the popular press and community.

How it all started
It is amazing to see what happens in a year. This story is also provides a good lesson to note for myself as well as share this with my students: You never know who is reading your work.

I wrote a post back in September 2015 about the top five social media and sports professionals to note in the industry. After I wrote it, I immediately got a note from Jonathan Gantt saying “hey! You might also want to check out what we are doing at Clemson Athletics.” I did and I am forever grateful Jonathan reached out to me. I realized at that moment I was seeing something special coming from their team.

The past year has been a whirlwind of correspondence, chats, guest lectures (both Jeff Kallin and Jonathan spoke to #Freberg16 last term) and the more interactions and content I was seeing from their team, the more impressed I was getting.

I considered them the best in the business hands down. The work they were doing for this college season was truly mind blowing. If there was an Oscars for social media and sports content, they need to just give it to Clemson. They have continued to dominate the field on and off with their content and innovative approaches. FB 360 videos, drone footage, and truly touching and visually stimulating stories that were framed for multiple platforms.

We all have bucket lists and things we want to do. For me, I wanted to see the best in action and learn from them. It all started off with a conversation on Twitter and I mentioned how this was something I always wanted to do. And then I got an invitation from Jonathan that said – come on down! Next thing I know, I am all booked and ready to go to head down to Clemson for the football game on October 15th.

A true tie and partnership with the university
I had the chance to tour around Clemson University and meet some great people who were part of the athletics and social media team. I got to meet Brandon Boatwright in person for the first time (we had talked about PhD programs and research before) and saw Clemson’s social media listening center, which was pretty cool.

One of the things that stood out to me about Clemson was how the campus was structured. The overall look reminded me a lot of Tennessee, and it wasn’t just the orange that made both schools similar to me. The overall atmosphere and culture was very welcoming and supportive. I found at times looking around and seeing many of the students smiling and having a good time. It was overall a very positive experience.

We took a golf cart around campus (I so want one now for when I get back to Louisville!) to see everything, and throughout the day, I saw something that really stood out to me. While Jonathan and Jeff were taking me around campus, students, professors, and colleagues were waving and saying hi to them. All of them knew who they were because they are always on and around the main campus. Jeff and Jonathan knew each of them and the exchanges I saw were very positive and energetic.

This is UNPRECEDENTED at universities. To have professionals from athletics not only be on campus, but work with professors and students in classes and collaboration efforts is amazing to see. Nik and Jeff are working on a class to teach in the spring and I wish it was online so I could take it!

Witnessing True Mentorship
This was one area I saw virtually that really stood out to me as a professor. I was able to see Jeff and Jonathan praise their students, give credit where credit was due, and help them achieve the most they can while they were at Clemson. I was thinking I would see what I was observing and noting online (particularly on Twitter).

What I saw was even more powerful. I saw TRUE mentorship and guidance. I saw Jeff, Jonathan, and Nik all take the time to provide guidance and support for their interns. Their approach was very professional, supportive, and encouraging. Their expectations and standards for their work of course was very high, but they engaged the students like a coach would. Working with them, showing them what they were looking for, and bouncing around ideas.

I have been teaching for a while now and these were some of the best actions of teaching in sports and social media I have seen. I knew this was one thing that made a difference for this team, but after seeing this in person, WOW.

Behind the Scenes and Learning from the best
This was a really fun part of my trip and time at Clemson. I was able to see before, during, and after the game what the sports and social media team was doing. From the field to the press box, I was able to see the system in which Jonathan and Jeff had in place with their team and how they all collaborated together.

Jonathan was able to show me the work he does on the field and the coordination efforts he does with Nik on video + photos. There is a very high level of trust among everyone on the team, including with the interns. The team is not at all working in silos, but somewhat of a honeycomb approach where everyone is working together for the better of the team. Collaboration was happening in real time and in person.

Since I knew they were all working, this gave me time to reflect and take notes. I was able to see the team work being played out and all that goes into coordinating content to go out at certain times and what are the tools they use to achieve this. I was making mental notes for myself to share with my students because there were things I was like – WOW! This is a great idea!

I got to see some amazing angles of the pre-game and game itself because of Jonathan. He took me around the facility and we were able to cover the Tiger Walk from the fourth floor of the stadium (club area, which is beautiful!) and then head to the hill (that will give you a workout!)

What I think was truly amazing to witness was the coordination and speed in which everything was created, shared, and sent out on social media.When it comes to creative design, I swear Jeff Kallin is the master (maybe a Jedi Master!) of this. The speed and creative insights he put into his work (I got to see him create the first Facebook 360 image for a game score recap in person). Truly Mind Blowing.

Making this professor “Walk the Walk”
There are so many times where we hear the growing need for professors to have “real world experience” to bring into the classroom, which I think is absolutely crucial and super important in the area of social media. So, I had the chance to do this exact thing this weekend by doing my first Snapchat takeover for Front Office Sports. Yes, this was my very first one. I had talked about it in my classes, brainstormed ideas with students, and even served as another pair of eyes for when Chase (one of my former #Freberg16 students) for Front Office Sports when Louisville hosted College GameDay.

Talking about a strategic tactic to implement for a social media campaign is one thing, but doing it is completely on another level. I had to think of the various angles, shots, mixture of content and voice I wanted to share with everyone on this account. How many snaps were too many? What is the ratio I want to have for pictures to videos? How many filters should I use and which ones will be available?

It was an awesome learning experience for me. I had a fabulous time and I appreciate everyone who shared with me their thoughts and reactions of the coverage.

Putting a human side on the sports and social media team
Along with seeing the team in action, I also got to see something even more special to me: I got to see the human side of the team. After touring around the campus on Friday, Jonathan and Jeff invited me to be part of a few activities with their respective families on campus like band practice and seeing the Homecoming floats on campus.

In the sports and social media field, it is very easy to look at just an avatar and Twitter handle and that is all you see. However, I got to see the depth, personality, and kindness of the people behind the handles, avatars, and awesome content. This was one of the favorite experiences I had during my time – and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with both families and see another side of Jonathan and Jeff most professionals in the #SMSports business do not see.

Another experience that again, showed me the human side and generosity of the Clemson team, was the gift they presented to me on Friday. I was in a meeting where I was told they got me something – I was extremely surprised and I was thinking. Wow! The gift you all are giving me is allowing me to come chat, visit, and learn from you all! I was in the parking lot about to head to another event when I was presented with this gift.

You could not have prepared me for the gift Clemson presented to me.

I was truly blown away.

I was presented with a personalized Clemson football jersey. This was not just any regular jersey, but one that was part of the Nike lineup for when Clemson was in the College Football National Championship Game against Alabama.

I would not consider myself an emotional person, but I was beyond touched and almost started crying because of this extremely generous gift. I have never gotten anything like this and this is probably one of the best sports gifts I have ever gotten. I will forever treasure this and this will be going in a place of honor in my office for everyone to see. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Clemson Athletics.

I am and will forever will be #AllIn

The time I had at Clemson this weekend was nothing more than spectacular. I am not even sure if this is even the right word. That was the the true challenge for me these past few days – how do you describe an experience you are getting that is truly nothing like you have ever had?

Mind blowing. Special. Epic. Legendary. Fantabulous. 

I’d say I have to list all of these here to help me describe my experience. I cannot thank the Clemson Athletics team for being such amazing hosts. This was truly an experience I will never forget!


Karen Freberg is an assistant professor in Strategic Communications at the University of Louisville and an adjunct instructor for the WVU Graduate Online Program Freberg’s research has been published in several book chapters and in academic journals such as Public Relations Review, Journal of Public Relations Education, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management and Health Communication. Freberg’s social media pedagogy practices have been featured in Forbes and in USA Today College publications. You can find more from her at