SBJ/20100201/Opinion

Social media can’t replace good salesmanship, creativity

The role of the public relations practitioner in the world of sports has changed. I’ve seen it as well as lived it.

I was one of the lucky ones being tutored by the best in the business: Joey Goldstein, who handled publicity for the United States Trotting Association; Haskell Cohen, a publicist for the NBA from 1950 to 1969 who helped create the league’s first All-Star Game; and Charlie Callahan, the legendary sports information director at Notre Dame who later served the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Each of these men had something in common: a nose for news, and the ability to sell it to the media.

In short, the role of the sports publicist then was to be a salesperson, or, better yet, a “pitchman.”

Today, even with social media as a tool, the role seems to have switched to a serviceperson.

In fact, thanks to e-mail, the college sports information director at University X can easily live in an entirely different time zone and e-mail his news releases and statistical information from the basement of a home, wherever that may be.

We may have social media today, but we lack social contact.

As a publicist for Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos., I was assigned to promote and publicize many of their racing facilities for years.

My first stop, always, was a visit and a lunch with the local sports editor. I asked what his needs may be and how I could help serve.

Or, rather, How can I get space? And since racing falls lower on the totem pole in sports assignments, well, one must be creative in selling one’s product.

At Monticello Raceway in upstate New York, a minor harness track, we competed with The Meadowlands in New Jersey.

While the Hamiltonian was being run at The Meadowlands, the Mighty M promoted The Elephantonian. We had two pachyderms race the half-mile oval. The result was the front page in the Times Herald-Record.

We transitioned to Man vs. Beast when I toiled at Latonia Race Course in Florence, Ky. We had then Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Cris Collinsworth race a horse before close to 10,000 screaming and adoring fans being introduced to thoroughbred racing.

At Oral Roberts University, as sports information director, we wanted to let all American Indians in for free for a game with the Oklahoma City University Chiefs. I said I’d stand at the gate and be able to spot the American Indians. “How?” someone asked. “That’s one way!” I said. The media poured in.

When Fort Lauderdale Striker Ray Hudson lost one of his sandals on the beach, a reward was offered, hoping for some air play. Anyone returning the sandal would receive a pair of tickets to the next home game. And, like Cinderella, Hudson would have to try on the sandal to see if it fit.

Hudson’s Striker teammate, Gerd Mueller, aka Der Bomber, was a legend in his German homeland but not comfortable with the English language. To most publicists, this would create a major problem in the interview room. With some creativity, and social contacts, we managed to have Mueller do a South Florida weather forecast on the 11 p.m. news in German, with English subtitles.

In short, every team has a leading scorer, and every team clamors for its proper place in the media. But superlatives alone may not get the media drooling.

Jay Horwitz, the longtime publicist with the New York Mets, is a master at selling the story. When Darryl Strawberry returned to the Big Apple, Horwitz promoted a Strawberry Sunday, when fans received free sundaes with their paid admissions.

Frankly, sponsors would benefit, too, from being associated with something a little off-stride. Team marketers might consider infusing the exotic into the menus of promotions.

According to his obituary last February in The New York Times, Goldstein operated “far from the world of public relations aides who turned out” corporate brochures. In the spring of 1959, a story came out of France about a star trotter named Jamin who was said to love artichokes. Jamin was invited to participate in the first International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, where Goldstein handled publicity.

The trotter’s chances were slim, though, so Goldstein had 154 pounds of artichokes shipped from France. After they were briefly confiscated by the Department of Agriculture, the artichokes somehow were lost.

Goldstein took out advertisements in the Times and the New York Herald Tribune that said, “French Trotter Needs Artichokes. Can You Help?” He gave the telephone number of Roosevelt Raceway.

“Papers put reporters on the artichoke beat,” Goldstein told George Vecsey of the Times in 1988.

Artichokes came from everywhere: the Bronx, from California by jet.

The result: Jamin won the International Trot before more than 45,000 people.

Salesmanship with a bit of creativity can go a long way in sports public relations. I know. When looking for an Opening Night promotion at Latonia Race Course in 1984, I suggested I get married in the winner’s circle.

It worked: 6,500 people turned out, including my bride, and there was live coverage at 6.

Andy Furman (furman@townmediainc.com) operates Cincinnati-based Publicity Enterprises, promotes local and area business, and has hosted sports talk radio for 18 years.

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