SBJ/October 10-16, 2011/Opinion

Why athletes aren’t always best choice

Is an athlete the best choice as a spokesperson for a company’s sports marketing campaign?

Today, my answer to that question would be different than it was during and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller. I worked with many athletes on significant national and international campaigns. Often, I was the “decider” on which athletes to use for publicity purposes.

But over the years, my thinking has changed. Based on practice, experience and observation, and the unpredictable behavior of many athletes, I would now advise clients to often consider the non-athlete spokesperson route for their sports marketing publicity campaigns.

Athletes are often seen as the best way to gain publicity for marketing campaigns. That’s not always true. There are many non-athletes who can be productive spokespersons. It all depends on how the PR program is structured. In many cases, a simple tweaking of the program can accommodate using a retired athlete or another professional — psychologist, physician, historian, trainer, author or retired journalist — to deliver the client’s message.

I’ve seen more media coverage than I can remember that includes a one-line sentence saying, “Athlete X is a spokesman for XYZ.” And the PR account executive is proud of the accomplishment. In today’s media environment, with more outlets for sports marketing publicity opportunities than ever because of talk radio and social media, the scant client tie-in should be the minimum expected, not the end-all.

I’m a believer that publicity programs should cover all aspects of the media, the old and new outlets, instead of just concentrating on the sports scene. That could often mean not falling back to the hackneyed playbook of using an athlete to deliver the client’s sports marketing message points. Too often the athlete becomes the story, and the message that the client wants and expects to be delivered is given short shrift.

I can immediately think of two cases where using a retired athlete or another sports professional best fit the client’s needs.

A client wanted to promote its educational products. We selected a school-room game called “Math Baseball.” Baseball hall of famer Monte Irvin was designated “commissioner/spokesman.” The publicity program was designed to produce results on and off the sports pages. The importance of math was stressed and resulted, importantly, in as much coverage off the sports pages as on them.

Retired athletes can offer a brand or company a tie to sports and sports nostalgia but without the risk of losing focus on message points because of current performance on the field. In my experience, brands also face fewer conduct issues when dealing with retired players.

For another client that wanted to promote its television series of sporting events, we used game play-by-play announcers, instead of athletes. The gimmick was, “How to watch an event on TV.” Because it was sports, it was covered by sports media. However, because of its emphasis about what to look for during the action, it was covered extensively on TV pages, which was primarily what the client wanted. Result: A happy client for nine years.

Today, because of the growing importance of new media techniques, PR agencies have to be more cautious than ever when deciding on athlete spokespersons. Social media has made it imperative that spokespersons are both media savvy and good citizens. The last thing you want is to have an athlete spokesperson be a loose cannon and tweet comments that can cause discomfort for your client.

Arthur Solomon (arthursolomon4pr@juno.com) was a senior vice president/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and is a consultant on public relations projects.

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