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Sports Public Relations Critical to Athlete Playbook

Public RelationsWe’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.

Book“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.


Photo Credits:  Public Relations ; Book

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5 Responses to Sports Public Relations Critical to Athlete Playbook

  1. Ryan September 8, 2009 at 7:11 am #


    Interesting post. In the ‘go go go’ times that we live in, I agree the art of telling a good story is something lost.

    But also the art of telling a good uplifting story is even further off the radar. It’s similar to watching your local news, all you see is the house that burned down, some car crash, but never the good stories, so I don’t even bother watching it anymore.

    Sure every story isn’t going to be the most remarkable story you’ve ever heard, but if we would take time to find those human interest stories that deserve to be told, it would help us tremendously.

  2. Gail Sideman September 8, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    Ryan – Without saying so, I wrote this post with the lack of uplifting stories in mind. Some publicists try to tell them, but they only stick on a slow muck day. I also wish more positive stories were heard more often.

  3. Mike Lieberman September 13, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

    I think one of the things that we miss as public relations professionals is generating a connection with fans. Sure, the die-hard fan wants to know the up-to-date stats and injury reports. But we cultivate new relationships by giving people a way to connect with athletes and organizations. Providing biographies that go beyond what happens on the field, being prepared with stories that talk about a person, more than the player, these are important elements, too. You never know what makes someone a fan: the casual observer might become a fan because of the alma mater or major of a player, or his off-field activities. Sometimes the most effective PR has nothing at all to do with the last game.


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