We’ve heard the words “public relations” tossed around quite a bit this summer, particularly when an athlete or coach scrambles to save face after behaving badly. My concern as someone who’s worked in sports PR in some shape or form for most of my professional life, is that I increasingly hear consumers talk about press conferences during which the accused attempts to set the record straight, as public relations spin zones.
You know the ones I’m talking about: University of Louisville basketball coach, Rick Pitino who is being extorted for millions of dollars after an affair earlier this decade; Plaxico Burress, a New York Giants wide receiver who recently plead guilty to weapons charges after he accidentally shot himself earlier this year and of course, Michael Vick, a previously heralded quarterback who spent 18 months in prison after bankrolling a dogfighting ring.
While it’s important to look at how sports interests handle themselves in the face of adversity, it’s important to dispel the myth that public relations is only for diverting attention away from a crisis.
Public relations, in its ideal existence, helps to provide audiences with information and knowledge they would not already enjoy. It’s about communicating messages about an organization or individual that helps to shape that group’s image. It’s how people perceive you because of the relationships you’ve developed with them personally or professionally.
Sports public relations has had its challenges in the last two or three decades. Before technological advances in everything from desktop publishing to the way we produce audio and video, sports PR people were in the business of telling stories. People such as Lee Remmel, the Green Bay Packers longtime PR pro, Nick Vista a former sports information director at Michigan State and member of the CoSIDA (there are dozens more) are known for their ability to capture a room and most importantly, the ear of a reporter who would then tell those stories to audiences.
Today, there’s great responsibility among these professionals to have statistics updated, their media guides produced in the most sophisticated formats (today, most of it in html online so that information is up-to-the-minute) and managing producers of electronic productions, that there isn’t time to cull the best stories from off the field to show athletes and organizations in a positive light.
“The loss of the story telling is part of what’s missing in people’s lives now with all of our multi-tasking, social media updates and other responsibilities,” said Nick Gandy, the director of communications at the Florida Sport Foundation and former member of Florida State University’s sports information staff. “People don’t take the time to find out these stories and tell them, and it’s sad.
Gandy, who calls himself an old-timer who embraces new media, said that short attention spans are not good for sports PR, but thinks that new pros can learn old tricks if given the time and opportunity.
“Good stories don’t generate click-throughs, sells newspapers and draw viewers so we don’t get to talk as much about the good stories and the great things that athletes do as compared to the scandalous ones,” Gandy said. “I think if given the personnel and opportunity, more of the good things would come out and people would appreciate knowing about them.”
Suffice to say, the role of a PR professional in sports is a balancing act that can only benefit from having more people power to embrace the value of having an entire organization embrace old-fashioned public relations. That includes meeting on the same pages and hopefully, act accordingly, in addition to doing more than crisis communication.
Until that time comes, audiences will have to depend on us – those who learn of the great contributions that coaches and athletes make to our communities – to tell the stories.