Rules to remember when creating a sports marketing or other publicity program

by | Jul 5, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

Many corporations are or will shortly start planning promotional campaigns for Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series and for the beginning of the National Football League season and Super Bowl. For a PR staffer being assigned to one of those accounts, it can be “good news, bad news” career move because of three important aspects:

  • During my years in the PR business, a sought-after assignment by many staffers was to be assigned to a sports marketing program because they are thought to be glamorous. But being assigned to one can also be detrimental to a career. That’s because sports marketing programs usually are financed with very large budgets and if they don’t work the client and agency management will look for scapegoats. Too often overlooked is that the failure of the program might be because of senior management or client directions, but those are usually overlooked as innocent lower-level staffers are blamed.
  • PR people have the wrong impression about sports marketing accounts. Just because a person knows the difference between a home run and touchdown convinces many PR higher-ups that anyone can get meaningful results from a well-financed program. However, that is not true. Many journalists look askance when approached to do a story about a sport marketing program and most of these type stories end up in trade or marketing columns. It takes a savvy, creative PR person to develop unusual news angles to get a journalist to do such a story that contains meaningful client talking points. The usual results when interviewing an athlete who has such signed sports marketing deal is to say, “Joe Jones has recently signed as a spokesperson for the XYZ Company.” The remainder of the article is about the athlete’s career. As far as I’m concerned that type of story is a strikeout.
  • A sports marketing publicity program must have elements that are different from the usual journalistic suspect programs so it does not get lost in the clutter of similar programs.

During my management of many national and international sports programs I always stressed that one of the most important aspects when crafting a sports marketing program is who to use for publicity appearances. Usually, the “star of the day” is suggested. And that often results in less than expected results for an obvious reason to those of us who were journalists before transitioning to the public relations business. Those current athletes are available to the media every day. And unless the media is offered something new, as I said above, athlete endorsement deals stories usually end up in marketing or advertising publications with minimal coverage in consumer pubs. Thus, if gaining sponsor identification in the media is a primary goal, it’s important to select an athlete who is not in the media spotlight on a steady basis. I always preferred retired athletes with credentials that appealed to the media.

Some examples:

When I managed Gillette’s fan election for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game for eight years, when Gillette was the sole sponsor of the program, I would only use retired ballplayers that were a natural fit for the program—meaning they had to have been on all-star teams.

The message to be conveyed was that the all-star game was the fan’s game and fans had the right to select the players. Among those who I used to spread the message were Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Lefty Gomez, among others. Sports feature writers were anxious to develop articles prior to the all-star game and these “old-timers” provided the stories that game day reporters would not cover.

I also used retired athletes out of the media spotlight for a while on an assortment of other programs. For Olympic programs, Bob Mathias, the American decathlete and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was a delight to work with, as was baseball Hall of Famer Monte Irvin for Math Baseball, a classroom educational instruction product.

As a journalist and editor before joining the PR business, whose first reporting job was in the sports department—called the Toy Department by “serious” staffers in those days—before being recruited by a national PR firm and then by the international giant Burson-Marsteller, I brought what I learned during my covering news to creating news. It was that the best way to promote a client was to realize that reporters and assignment editors aren’t impressed by the person or entity you represent. Instead, the way to gain coverage was to develop story lines that were different from the run of the mill pitches journalist received every day.

Using retired athletes not in the daily news cycle was a workable method for sports marketing programs. So was other out-of-the box programming. The history of postage stamps for a client in that category gained major publicity as did using a former New York City mayor, who was a teacher, for an educational program. For a politician, I arranged a New York City subway “whistle stop” campaign during which the candidate would depart the train at each stop in his district and meet people on the platforms. Another was to arrange for a United States Senator to campaign on a ferry from Brooklyn to Staten Island.

What all of the above had in common was that they provided the media with something out of the ordinary

If you have legitimate hard news to pitch it’s not necessary to invent the news. But, let’s face it.  The overwhelming majority of what PR agencies and clients think is news is not what journalists think is news. And that’s why it’s necessary to think outside of the box.

Below are some rules to remember when creating a sports marketing publicity program:

  • A sports marketing publicity program can and should be crafted in a manner that will work with or without an athlete as the spokesperson. Example: A sports psychologist is an easy fit; also, because of the interest in preventing injuries to high school athletes or younger, a head trainer from a major sport team works.
  • Programs should be crafted so they can be implemented locally and nationally.
  • Programs should be workable for many years with minimal changes.
  • Do your own due diligence regarding the athlete’s behavior. It’s easily done using search sites. Warning: Do not merely accept agent’s promises.
  • Know the media. Publicity success is largely due to knowing which media to pitch.
  • Think like a reporter. Each story they cover can be approached several different ways. PR people should have several different angles to pitch.
  • A media savvy ambush marketing sports program can gain more publicity than an “approved” program. (Just check the legal restrictions.)

And an important consideration when deciding on an athlete as a spokesperson is to remember that unlike in the past, some of today’s athletes are active in political and social movements, something many clients want to avoid. So choose your athlete carefully.

General Douglas MacArthur once said, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”  In PR parlance that can mean don’t be stymied by tenets that were written decades ago. Give the media something different and the chances of gaining meaningful publicity will be enhanced.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.