SBD/November 3, 2011/Media

PR Roundtable Discusses Challenges Facing Industry's Top Communications Execs

In this week’s SportsBusiness Journal, a PR roundtable discusses some of the challenges facing the top communication execs in sports business, from media fragmentation to building relationships. The six participants were FSN VP/Communications Chris Bellitti, NASCAR Managing Dir of Integrated Marketing Communications David Higdon, NFL VP/Communications Brian McCarthy, DKC PR Managing Dir of Marketing & Government Affairs Scott Miranda, ESPN VP/Communications Mike Soltys and Catalyst PR Managing Partner Bret Werner. In these additional excerpts, the panelists chime in on new approaches to communications and the skill set they seek in any new hires. Answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What are some communication examples that you've seen demonstrated, whether effectively or not, that you think may influence how you communicate in the future?

Soltys said the company is trying to find a
way to aggregate the "flood" of social media
Soltys
: An indirect answer to that, the volume of information being put out on Twitter, aggregation and curation become that much more important because there's a flood and just a sliver of good stuff. So we're trying to find ways to aggregate the good stuff. We launched something on our corporate blog a couple weeks ago where on Monday morning we're putting out social media traffic of all the different things that went on since people left on Friday, with the hopes that on Monday morning it's like one-stop shopping, here's all your little tidbits that ESPN PR thinks you'll find interesting. So it's a tool to take the massive amount of information and a way to present it in an easier way. We're using Storify, which we saw other media outlets using successfully, so we just borrow from that. Always taking a look at any kind of PR issue before we launch the blog. Read a lot about corporations using good blogs: Starbucks, Marriott, Disney parks, so we went to their blogs. It had nothing to do with blogs, but saw what works and what doesn't work. Professionally, it's paramount to follow what everyone else is doing and doing the best things.

McCarthy: We have the ability to work with a lot of different groups if it's from the political world or even the entertainment world. I learn a lot by working with publicists, working with entertainment mainly around Super Bowl time. But then it comes back that it doesn't just have to be through technology. We looked at town halls, which we call fan forums. So we saw what Obama and McCain did in town halls in the run up to '08, so we've taken our commissioner on the road and done a number of fan forums. That's been an effective way to talk directly to fans, so we're continuing those, including conference calls with large groups of fans. It's the old-fashion way of physically talking to someone who is important.

Q: Are you using Klout and other indices to track the influence of people online? Are they important at all to you?

Werner: Absolutely. We've probably done a dozen Klout programs with marquee brands this year [Klout identifies and separates social media influencers among the public and markets to them specifically]. This represents a whole new group of influences, and it's consumers. If there's one group that's the most under-leveraged from a brand standpoint, it's the consumer. Why are we not talking to these consumers that have incredible influence? So I can identify women who love adventure sports or yoga and have this incredible influence and can shape conversation. I think Klout is the first of a few different services out there that offer some kind of metric to identify consumer influences. That's going to be a big thing in 2012, no doubt about it.

Higdon: We're definitely looking at a lot of options in that space. What we're trying to do is make sure we understand through research the conversation that's being had out there and don't just rely on our own PR gut. We're looking a little bit deeper to see what our fan base and partners are thinking before we go out there with our messaging, and that's a pretty significant shift. It's a major shift ultimately within our culture and what we're trying to create here over the next three to five years.

Q: What type of talents are you looking for in your new hires?

Higdon: Collaborative, proactive, creative, personable. We really have made this major cultural shift from a reactive organization to one that's much more creative. People who have digital and social skills, people who have a Hispanic background, people who have youth experience -- all the things that match up with our industry-action plan, that's what we're doing. The overall philosophy is let's surround ourselves with people that make us smarter and better.

Werner: At Catalyst it's digital, and when I say digital I don't mean necessarily mean social. Catalyst will have an expertise in sports entertainment, but will absolutely have a backbone on technology. I think it's important for communication people to understand how everything works and what's evolving beyond social.

Miranda says media specialists are gone and
he now looks for multifacted candidates
Miranda
: To an extent they have to be news junkies. We're looking for people that are definitely into news and people that are broad-based. Probably 10 years ago I'd be looking for people that are specifically interested in sports and in that specific industry, almost a specialist, but today's specialists are pretty much gone, you really have to be multifaceted in terms of your expertise. And that's what we look for. People that love news, people that understand it and how the process works, and have diverse backgrounds.

Soltys: We have consistently looked for proactivity as a leading quality, but two recent hires I think illustrate the direction things are going. David Scott was coach Calipari's digital guru, and we hired him, and we had success doing that. Then, Sheldon Spencer was an ESPN.com editor on the NFL side and we hired him to oversee the corporate blog because we needed a writer-editor. And neither of those two positions would have been something we were looking for as recently as a couple years ago. And both of them have brought a tremendous amount of value to our department.

Bellitti: At the end of the day PR people, we're communicators. You have to have the ability to effectively communicate your message, and in some ways the skill set is not that much different from salesmen. Salesmen are selling a product, selling a brand; we're selling our message to the outlets. You have to be convincing, be personable, be strategic, and I think that's very important.

Q: There's a lot of unemployed journalists out there. Would you rather hire an experienced newspaper guy with 20 years of experience, or some young person coming out of an agency?

Bellitti: It depends on the job and what's being called for. Once again being personable is very, very important and able to communicate and sell your message. Whatever it takes to that is very important.

Werner: I think story telling is becoming more prominent, so it comes to are you a good storyteller?

For the full roundtable discussion, see this week’s SportsBusiness Journal.
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