2015 Sports PR Summit Recap

May 26, 2015

2015 Sports PR Summit Highlights
by Marist College Center for Sports Communication (Academic Partner)

The 2015 Sports PR Summit took place at Sports Illustrated’s auditorium in New York City in front of 130 invited senior PR executives and pro athletes.

Panel Discussion: The Role of Communication in the Overall Corporate Structure (recap by Avery Decker)

The first panel of the day featured Mary Scott, president of Sports & Experience with the United Entertainment Group; Kevin Sullivan, founder of Kevin Sullivan Communications; Rebecca Feferman, head of SXSports Programming; and Jay Parry, president and CEO of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. Kristi Roehm, founder of 8 Degrees PR, moderated the panel.

As the panel began, the panelists offered perspective on the structure of PR in each of their respective fields. While they all had distinctive ideas, they stressed the idea that PR needs to have a seat at the corporate table. More and more, PR and communications is becoming an increasingly vital aspect of operations. Sullivan noted that PR professionals are almost instinctively unselfish, but they need to find the opportunities to shine. That often happens during times of crisis, when the PR team should take a lead. “Advice given when not asked for is called criticism,” Sullivan noted.

“Crisis gives PR people a chance to show off their strategic thinking and planning,” he explained.

Throughout the session, panelists gave their own unique perspectives on the role of PR in corporate communication strategy. For example, according to Parry, “PR builds on the (brands or clients) messages in a very authentic way.”

Scott built on this idea, but also noted that PR professionals shouldn’t simply accept the way things have always been done. “We as communicators need to challenge the norm.”

The panel agreed that the CCO deserves a seat at the table and the role is not the same role as CMO.

Feferman discussed how SXSW used PR to build itself from the ground up. According to Feferman, it’s vital to know who the influencers are and which messages create the desired impact. That’s all part of a holistic approach to building a brand.

Feferman also made a key point: “It’s a mistake to assume the higher the title, the more appropriate they are to always represent the brand”.

In addition to looking outward, the panelists also touched on the importance of internal communication in business operations. One of the most important relationships is the one with the CEO. Parry noted that your job relies heavily on building relationships, not only with clients and other professionals, but also those within your organization. Strengthening those relationships and processes are yet another part of using communication to benefit corporate structure.

Featured Conversation: 1-on-1 with Crisis PR expert Matthew Hiltzik (recap by Avery Decker)

Hiltzik’s client list jumps off the page and includes not only several sports figures, but also Hillary Clinton, Justin Bieber and Alec Baldwin. He is a guru of PR strategy and consulting and is the CEO of Hiltzik Strategies. The featured conversation was conducted by Brian Berger, founder and CEO of the Sports PR Summit, moderated the conversation.

Before digging into his work history, Hiltzik discussed his background. Rare to the industry, Hiltzik was a working lawyer before entering the PR field. According the Hiltzik, this has been particularly useful when confronting the legal process with his clients, allowing him to see what’s legal, ethical, and possible.

Hiltzik noted the importance of talking to clients to see the situation from their perspective while voicing a realistic outlook on the situation. In some ways, crisis management is something like therapy. He went on to touch on the different types of situations that call for either ‘feeding’ or ‘starving’ the fire. For example, his company once pitched an edgy topic to a journalist specifically to create a bit of controversy – which created positive buzz about an upcoming movie. While some PR professionals might have shied from promoting this idea, Hiltzik believes that sometimes controversial publicity can help your property.

Hiltzik was able to share a story about client Manti Te’o, the professional football player who endured a considerable PR crisis before entering the league. Hiltzik told Te’o, as he tells many clients, that image repair doesn’t happen overnight but instead would be a long process. His goal was focused on one idea: make an impact before NFL training camps began. One way of accomplishing that was to arrange an interview between Te’o and ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, a former classmate of Hiltzik at Cornell. The interview allowed Te’o to tell his side of the story in a positive setting for his client. Interestingly, Schaap was a featured speaker at last year’s Sports PR Summit. Attendees of that event were now able to hear the entire story from the journalist perspective and the PR perspective.

Hiltzik also noted that when people make mistakes on twitter, it’s often better to use the platform for a response and apology instead of simply deleting a controversial or incorrect tweet.

One of the final things Hiltzik touched on was the role of non-verbal communication in affecting public and media perspective of someone. Always consider things such as attire, backdrop, and items in the shot – even the angle of the sun on someone’s face as part of image control.

Panel Discussion: How Polling/Public Opinion Influence PR Strategies (recap by Avery Decker)

Veteran sports PR consultant Joe Favorito moderated this panel that included Dave Mingey, co-founder of Glidescope; Mike Berland, CEO of Edelman Berland; Darren Grubb, Strategic Communications Consultant; and Stephanie Rudnick, founder of Stephanie Rudnick LLC.

Mike Berland, who recently worked with the MLS’s newest expansion team NYCFC, explained that the combination of solid analytics, public opinion, and realistic expectations helped NYCFC build a culture that New Yorkers could identify with.

Stephanie Rudnick, in her experience with athletes and brands, highlighted the importance of thinking strategically over the long term. “Our job is to think long-term rather than short-term,” Rudnick said. She noted that this strategy has worked 90% of the time, and while clients and agents alike might be skeptical at first while expecting a short-term solution, they were satisfied in the end.

Darren Grubb that, “nothing is local anymore,” referencing the digital media world and 24-hour news cycle. If something is picked up locally, it’s a simple step to becoming a national and global story.

Perhaps the most important point made: poll data can serve several purposes, the most important which is helping you make informed decisions. Still, the data should not make the decision for you, but rather be the support you use in making the decision.

Featured Conversation: Sports Illustrated Roundtable Discussion (recap by Janie Pierson & Michael Wallace)

Sports PR Summit Founder Brian Berger moderated a Sports Illustrated Roundtable Discussion featuring SI’s managing editor Chris Stone, executive editor Jon Wertheim and reporter Richard Deitsch.

The three panelists spoke about the relationship between writers, the media and public relation departments and agencies. Deitsch stressed the importance of creating a positive, respectful relationship between reporter and PR professional. He prefers to work with athletes and PR representatives that treat him as an “adult” and understand his responsibilities as a journalist. “You need honesty on both sides and understand what both sides’ objective is,” said Deitsch.

Deitsch and Berger had an interesting exchange about the nature and authenticity of social media. At the beginning of the panel, Berger noted Deitsch’s Twitter account (@richarddeitsch) as one he follows closely. Deitsch took that cue to tell the audience that people in real life are different than their social media persona, even though we often conflate the two. Yet despite that, Deitsch noted that social media has the power to shape entire lives and reputations.

According to Wertheim, SI’s success depends on their relationship with their readers. “Our partnership is with the audience,” said Wertheim on SI’s prevailing journalistic goals. He also noted that subjects and athletes that are open books and speak their minds flourish in today’s media landscape. Contrary to popular belief, the SI crew believes the relationship between athletes and media has actually improved thanks to the new channels that have opened up for athletes to voice their opinions. Wertheim dismissed the idea that particular, notable confrontations between athlete and the media are either a harbinger or a new phenomenon. According to Wertheim, the Marshawn Lynch and Russell Westbrook types have always existed in sports and certainly are nothing new in player-media relations.

Stone shared a successful story about the relationship between Sports Illustrated and LeBron James, one that gave the magazine a great exclusive. Stone explained that due to the magazine’s relationship and close work with LeBron during the 2014 free agency period., LeBron chose to use SI as his own personal platform to explain his reasons for going back home to Cleveland. Stone further explained SI’s position.

“It is a belief that we all share,” said Stone. “We are the premier journalistic body for telling stories thoroughly, smartly and independently.”

Panel Discussion: Digital + Social Media Discussion (recap by Casey Bryant & Janie Pierson)

Justin Garrity, the President of Postano, moderated the Digital and Social Media Discussion between Sam Silverstein (Head of Digital Content for PAC-12 Networks), Alex Riethmiller (VP of Communications for NFL Media), Michael Conley (VP of Digital for Cleveland Cavaliers), and Josh Rawitch (SVP Communications for Arizona Diamondbacks). The panel discussed the various influences and changes in the social media world around sports.

After mentioning the obvious impact of the “major three” social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – the panel discussed the rise of other social platforms, including Periscope, Dubsmash, and Snapchat. All four panelists stressed the concept of authenticity within their team/league social media accounts.

Specifically, Snapchat is a “great way to have both video and still image content” that is consumed “unbelievably quick” by fans of teams and leagues. However, it’s not clear that more senior staff and fans are able to authentically use Snapchat as might a younger, more intuitive sports fan/employee. In order to remain genuine, Rawitch has turned over the Diamondbacks’ Snapchat account responsibilities to younger employees and interns. Further, as Rawitch stated, “a 21 year old kid just out of college sees the game differently than older employees.” As such, Snapchat might allow the team to appeal to a younger audience.

Facebook’s video capabilities were also identified as a huge opportunity for teams and leagues to attract viewers and fans. Silverstein remarked that Facebook videos “have three seconds or less to engage the audience.” Additionally, “65% of the video content on Facebook is muted…this changes the nature of the storytelling.” For those reasons, Facebook videos are usually highlight-heavy in the beginning to grab fans.

Riethmiller concurred that speed is of the essence in social media – there is a lot of pressure on social media employees to engage audiences quickly and early in the message. He noted that creates an ongoing strain between getting thing up first and making sure to get them right.

Panel Discussion: Sports + Society: How Sports Shapes Larger Conversations in Society (recap by Casey Bryant)

In the final panel of the day, veteran sports journalist Ric Bucher (Bleacher Report & Sirius/XM Radio) moderated a panel of Tiki Barber (co-founder of Thuzio & NY Giants all-time leading rusher), Derrick Mason (15 year NFL veteran and current broadcaster), Derrick Hall (President and CEO, Arizona Diamondbacks), and Mike Bass (Executive VP of Communication, NBA). The group discussed how sports shape larger conversations in society. Each of them noted that, largely thanks to the pervasiveness of social media, this relationship between sport and society has mutated and placed athletes far more at the center of important social issue. It’s also allowed them greater unfiltered voice. That potential can be both a blessing and a curse from the viewpoint of a professional sports franchise. While athletes and management alike use social media for fan interaction and personal promotion, social media can also elicit criticism and create crises.

Mike Bass discussed this around the Donald Sterling’s “crisis situation,” saying that the job of a communications and PR director is to get information “as swiftly as possible.” In a case such as Sterling’s, smart strategy is to acknowledge the situation and inform the press that the organization is investigating and truly taking the situation seriously. In all cases, it’s key to be quick and definitive while also not making decisions without proper information.

The athletes on the panel noted that a locker room is generally more accepting than the general public, where fans are more prone to a visceral, knee-jerk reaction. Because of this, teams can deal with difficult situations through strategic internal communication strategies, taking the public discourse out of the equation and reducing external noise and disruption. Tiki Barber recalled a time when his team signed Kerry Collins as a quarterback, bringing with him an external reputation of racism, alcoholism, and irritability. Instead of allowing that reputation to control the narrative, management approach players and advised them to get to know Collins “without prejudice.” In this way, potential conflict in the locker room was prevented, which served to halt any potential public dissention from within the organization.

According to Barber, “you have to learn for yourself before you make a judgment on a fellow teammate.”

Barber also commented on the function of social media for the professional athlete. Fans have an unprecedented connection to the athletes they follow, and those athletes have a listening audience that wants to hear input and insider information.

Both Mason and Barber discussed the controversies the NFL has endured over the past year. Both noted that they were not surprised by the rash of domestic violence cases and said the league has known about the problem of domestic violence in its league, but because of the enormous publicity around the cases this year, the NFL has created PSA’s and other PR efforts to try to offset the negative perception of players in the league.

Hall asserted that it is vital for professional organizations to use their platform and social media for the greater social good, not just for monetary gain. Hall specifically discussed how he and the Diamondbacks handled his diagnosis of prostate cancer. Specifically, he had to decide whether to distance his personal life from the Diamondbacks organization and keep this information private or to use his and the team’s platforms to educate and raise awareness. Hall chose the latter, recognizing that sports gave him a unique opportunity to make a difference in society.

“I decided to share my story,” he said. “I wanted to educate other men. This is going to be our breast cancer, where one-in-six men have it.”

The panel stressed that it was key for sports organizations to constantly gauge the information flow of their personnel and understand what is being said by and about your organization and the people within it. Organizations must consistently moderate and respond to things said about them, both good and bad. The immediacy of social media has only made that process more important. In other words, teams and athletes must be proactive, particularly when sports intersect with larger social issues. That, as the panelists noted, is the function of good PR professionals.

The panel also agreed that it is important for leagues, teams and brands to exchange ideas and best practices so they can continue to improve.

Everyone who attended the 2015 Sports PR Summit walked away smarter because of the conversations that took place.