SBJ/September 5 - 11, 2005/SBJ In Depth

PR playbook

The city of Jacksonville believes it owns the right to sell signs in Alltel Stadium for college football games and other non-NFL events. That’s what’s all over Jacksonville’s morning news on a sweltering Thursday morning in July. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, who spent millions of dollars to help renovate the old Gator Bowl and brought a Super Bowl to Jacksonville, believe they control sign income from any stadium event. To keep its reputation as a good corporate citizen, the team needs public opinion on its side.

Dan Edwards of the Jacksonville Jaguars, on his cell phone at Jaguars training camp, is among the communications directors who deal with the more complex issues facing teams today.
That’s why Dan Edwards, who came to his profession to write game-day notes, arrange player interviews and record milestones, is sitting inside an office in the middle of Alltel Stadium with Jacksonville Jaguars’ majority owner Wayne Weaver, general counsel Paul Vance and CFO Bill Prescott, who also handles stadium operations, even as the Jaguars grunt and strain through an early practice.

Weaver suggests offering direct access to one of the Florida Times-Union’s Sunday columnists to get his message out. It’s up to Edwards, who has been with the team since before it played an NFL game, to choose the columnist and convince him that the topic is one he’d wanted to address all along. “I don’t want to call it spin, but Dan needs to be there to understand the message and to help us shape the message,” Weaver said. “Then it’s up to him to make sure we’re communicating that message forward.”

If a similar dispute had happened in 1993, at the end of his PR tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s safe to say Edwards wouldn’t have attended the meeting. Today, he’s an integral part of the Jaguars’ response team.

The proactive approach may have been novel to the NFL a decade ago, when team PR directors were largely in charge of statistics and injury reports. Now many spend more time playing offense than defense, helping shape the image of a franchise in the same way that Coca-Cola, Disney and other major corporations position themselves as companies and as brands.

“I regard us as a big public company,” said Richard Cass, the Ravens’ team president. “We don’t have shareholders, but we have the same fiduciary duties to our fans. We have to get information out there.”

“I used to be a mechanic,” said the Ravens’ Kevin Byrne, one of the most proactive of the NFL communication directors. “Now I’m an architect.”

You say you want an evolution?

In the NFL and other professional sports leagues, PR and media relations directors have always held power, by virtue — if nothing else -— of their role as conduits to the press who covered the team and shaped public opinion.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones brought a new emphasis on business and being proactive.
These were journalists or event promoters hired to sell the pro game, and they often moved swiftly up the corporate ladder. The architect of modern football, Pete Rozelle, began his career as a PR executive. “At one point, the evolution of the PR director of a given franchise was to become the general manager,” said Gary Wright, who has had a vice president-level position with the Seattle Seahawks since 1987.

For decades, the qualifications of the job remained the same, and so did the antecedents. Media relations directors were usually former sportswriters, such as Cincinnati’s Jack Brennan, or former college SIDs, like Pittsburgh’s Ron Wahl (who’d worked at Pitt) and Byrne (who followed around Al McGuire at Marquette), or graduates of sports management programs.

But a major change in the approach to the position began in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Chris Widmaier was hired by the NFL as its first manager of corporate communications. Beginning that year, he started making presentations to each of the media relations staffs around the league. Widmaier and other league officials realized the media landscape was changing, and directors had to start shaping their teams’ images instead of waiting for events — or media or fans — to do it for them.

The presentations worked. Not in all markets, and not with every director, but the most aggressive and ambitious of these former SIDs and beat writers saw an opportunity to change their role — or accelerate a redefinition of their role that had already begun.

“Many of the guys became more sophisticated at business PR and positioning the team in the marketplace,” said Widmaier, who now serves as the senior director of media relations for the USTA. “What followed from that is many of the PR directors now controlling the shoulder programming.”

The reasons for the shift in emphasis are varied, say executives around the league:

Football teams have always interacted with their communities, but these days the amounts of money involved are so large that they warrant coordinated marketing, public relations and community-relations efforts. “Maybe 15 years ago you worried about capturing the sports fans of the city,” said Harvey Greene, the Miami Dolphins’ senior vice president for media relations, “but now you have to make sure that everyone knows the purpose you serve in the community.”

Entertainment competition makes media a form of advertising. “We’ve gone from two teams in our market to four, and we can’t just go out and play football games and expect people to flock to us anymore,” said Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. “We have to get our message out.”

Message control. “In the corporate world, you’re trying to get your name in the paper,” Edwards said. “We know we’re getting our name in the paper. So it becomes, ‘What do we do with that?’”

A new generation of owners has joined the league, and the same aggressive mind-sets they used to help build the image of companies such as Blockbuster Video (Miami’s Wayne Huizenga), Nine West shoes (Weaver) and Home Depot (Atlanta’s Arthur Blank) has carried over to their football teams. “They’ve brought new business ideas to the NFL,” said Reggie Roberts, who left Tampa Bay to become the vice president of football communications in Atlanta before the 2004 season. “As a direct result of that, the days of the traditional PR director are over.”

Teams know they’re going to get media exposure. The trick is shaping the message.
Cass represented Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for 14 years in many of his business dealings and watched him alter the mind-set of the league. “Jerry came in and set a tone that was different than most owners had set before,” Cass said. “He really wanted to be a business success, as well as a success on the field. That led to being pro-active in many ways, such as media relations.”

As a result, and by virtue of his close relationship with Jones, the Cowboys’ Rich Dalrymple is one of the most effective image-shapers in the sport, while Brett Daniels is one of the league’s few titled directors of corporate communications.

In Houston, Texans owner Robert McNair is paying for Tony Wyllie, his vice president of communications, to get his MBA at Rice University. “I want him to understand our business,” McNair said.

Wyllie had worked for the Houston Oilers and three other NFL teams before returning to Houston with the expansion Texans. He had mastered the traditional tasks of a media relations staffer since his undergraduate days at Houston’s Texas Southern. But he’d also spent two years working for the Texans before they ever played a game. “I was doing business PR before we signed a player,” he said. “Logo unveiling, uniform unveiling, TV rights deal.”

The Internet and other media proliferation has changed mind-sets. The Web offered an opportunity to define a team’s brand, image and tonality, not to mention control information flow.

That image-shaping has carried over into other avenues. The Ravens produce two weekly television shows and two radio shows from their in-house studio, using a broadcast arm that Byrne oversees. New York Giants vice president of communications Pat Hanlon even hosts his own weekly television show, discussing Giants news and notes with some of the writers who cover the team for local newspapers.

Not all change their ways

How much time and energy a media relations director devotes to such message-crafting varies greatly. To a large extent, it depends on who owns the team: an old-school scion of an NFL family or a more aggressive-minded businessman with debt to service. “If you’ve had your franchise for a long period of time and came into the league when the commercial side of the business was quite small, you probably spend your time dealing with the football and selling tickets,” said Houston’s McNair.

It also depends on who coaches the team, and how comfortable he is with proactive public relations measures. Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick is one of the league’s most PR-oriented coaches after spending two seasons at the start of his career working as a media relations assistant with San Francisco. So when HBO came looking for a team that would allow total access during training camp in the summer of 2001, the defending Super Bowl champions became the cast of the first “Hard Knocks” reality series.

“Being a midmarket team, it exposed us on a level we couldn’t even imagine,” Billick said of the series. “Even above and beyond winning the Super Bowl.”

The job descriptions of today’s media relations executive can also depend on the talents and the ambitions of the person. Many have never worked outside the league, except perhaps as SIDs. Those with outside-world experience, such as Byrne (who worked at TWA), become even more valuable to teams that choose to use them as image-shapers and policy-makers.

This season, the Steelers’ Ron Wahl, formerly the SID at the University of Pittsburgh, has departed, and assistant Dave Lockett, whose background includes stints with a PR agency, a sports marketing firm and the NFL office, was promoted to replace him. “There’s no question that having the agency experience has helped me,” Lockett said.

Yet as some media directors range further from their training, experience and skill set, problems can arise. One such case occurred this summer. Kirk Reynolds had been a media director for the San Francisco 49ers for years when he found himself taking an increasingly public — and powerful — role with the team after the change in ownership from football-savvy Eddie DeBartolo to his sister, Denise, and her husband, John York, both new to the sport. Reynolds found himself making decisions that ownership groups usually make on their own.

Though Reynolds privately expressed misgivings about his new role to several of his peers, he became the face of the franchise’s stadium effort, and was given wide latitude in image-crafting and other decisions. That blew up when a video presentation that Reynolds wrote, produced and starred in featured nudity, a spoof on gay marriage and a stereotypical portrayal of a Chinese-American, angering not only the owners of the franchise, but San Francisco’s mayor.

Was Reynolds’ indiscretion merely a terrible decision on the part of a single executive, or a symptom of excessive power being placed around the league in the hands of image-shapers who don’t have the necessary skills for the job? NFL owners aren’t sure, and neither are many media relations directors. “Kirk had the empowerment, and he made a huge mistake,” Byrne said. “It was like the head coach drafted the wrong quarterback.”

But Wahl, who worked for the Steelers from 1999 through 2004, believes the problem may be the changing market conditions that are pushing many media relations directors outside their traditional realms. “I think a lot of guys are uncertain what role they’re in,” he said. “Should they go and advise ownership on various issues and stick their necks out, or stay in their own, football-oriented position? It’s hard to say no to an owner.”

In some cases, the transition has left directors longing for the old days. Some don’t particularly want to be inside the room when the high-level meetings about stadium signs are taking place, and their mind-sets haven’t changed appreciably since 1985.

“If I ask PR guys around the league, ‘Who are your suite holders and top six sponsors?’ there are some who wouldn’t know,” said Byrne. “Yet you’re proud that you know the 78th player on your roster in camp and where he went to college. That’s wrong. Which of those is more important to your organization?”

Other directors have been trying to push past the traditional boundaries of the position for years. “Kevin Byrne and Harvey Greene were the happiest when I came into the league,” said Julia Payne, a former communications director in the Clinton White House who served brief stints with the Redskins in 2003 and the Browns in 2004. “It validated what they’d been trying to tell their owners, that football franchises are no longer confined to the sports pages. You’re going to be on A-1, and you need people who have a strategic background.”

Greene even went so far as to attend the 2004 Democratic National Convention to see how his counterparts in politics operated. “I found they were basically very similar,” said Greene. “They both involve competition, they both involve getting the message out, and they’re both trying to appeal to a very wide audience.”

Yet Greene, who came to the Dolphins from MLB’s New York Yankees and had worked in the NBA, doesn’t advise hiring his successor straight from the floor of the Senate. He makes a case that credibility with coaches and players can only come from having a deep knowledge of sports culture. Added Seattle’s Wright, “There’s a football mentality, and anyone in that position has to understand that.”

Some owners aren’t so sure. “If Jim Saccomano [Denver’s vice president of public relations] came to me tomorrow and told me it was his last year and I’d better start looking for somebody else, I’d look for someone with significant experience, and not necessarily in football,” said Denver’s Bowlen.

In Jacksonville, Weaver sees more parallels with the image-shapers who helped build his shoe empire than with traditional sports information directors.

“There’s people out in corporate America who would be hugely successful in PR with an NFL club,” he said. “Is that the wave of the future? It may well be.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.

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