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Volume 23 No. 13
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Don't Lose Contact

... even when you don’t know what to say.
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Communications professionals across a wide range of sports business stressed that keeping the conversation honest, sympathetic and patient has never been more important. During a virtual roundtable discussion with Sports Business Journal on May 19, they shared personal and professional stories about communicating with constituents during the coronavirus pandemic and how their business and work have changed. What follows are excerpts of that discussion, edited for clarity and brevity.

ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS

Barry Baum, Chief Communications Officer, Milwaukee Bucks

Joe Favorito, Sports Brand and Marketing Consultant

Brett Jewkes, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, AMB Group

Chris LaPlaca, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, ESPN

Adam Petrick, Global Director of Brand Marketing, Puma

Mary Scott, President, Global Integrated Communications, United Entertainment Group

Bret Werner, President, MWWPR

Chris Widmaier, Managing Director, Corporate Communications, U.S. Tennis Association 

 
HOW THE PANDEMIC HAS CHANGED COMMUNICATION AROUND SPORTS:

 

Widmaier
Widmaier
Widmaier

Chris Widmaier:  It’s going to be a very interesting technological time in communications, because of the virtual nature of events. And whether you will have media on-site or not, which is still TBD, nearly across the board.

What is that technology that’s going to be that conduit and serve to get you and to get your message out when your players are not being surrounded by reporters or whatever, as is typically the case? And which technology will emerge, out of the many that we’re all being inundated with, as a leader, to provide a global sophisticated means to connect fans with players in your event?

Favorito
Favorito
Favorito

Joe Favorito:  One of the interesting things that people may not remember, on March 12, was this whole uproar about the locker rooms and whether locker rooms were going to be closed. … No one’s even talked about, what is that, access? I don’t know never, but for the long term, it’s not going to come back to what it was on March 12. 

Can you imagine, trying to put media into the locker room of Wrigley Field now? What that’s going to be like? And who’s going to be able to address what the new spaces are going to look like? Where people can do their jobs and how they’re going to be able to interact? … That’s going to be a massive factor when people start going back.

Werner
Werner
Werner

Bret Werner:  We’ll see a lot more virtual press conferences, virtual events. And also opportunities for brands to fill some of that void. You are going to be limited on the media on-site. What roles do the brands play to fill that void on content and storytelling?

LaPlaca
LaPlaca
LaPlaca

Chris LaPlaca:  I’m a little concerned about how many media are going to be there to cover it, period. You look at what’s happening in a lot of other places, it’s not good in terms of layoffs and what have you. And that concerns me. And we have a lot of friends around this industry that are suffering and their outlets are suffering. And I know that’s taking us way far afield, but that’s a practical reality that bothers me.

Widmaier:  One thing I’m wondering Barry ... can you envision a photographer underneath the hoop anymore at your arena?

Baum
Baum
Baum

Barry Baum:  No, I can’t. And I can’t imagine, like Joe and others were saying, a media scrum anymore. I think it was two days before the league went on hiatus, we had a meeting with the players — at the time we could actually have in-person meetings — where we told them that … media won’t be in the locker room anymore. This was obviously coming down from the league as well. All press conferences were going to be 8 feet apart from the media and we never expected it to get any different. And now we certainly don’t expect it to be any different.

Scott
Scott
Scott

Mary Scott:  We’re going to see a lot more creativity from brands, outside of that day-in and day-out of running a sports event. I think that we already were seeing the move to digital. And how do you bring it to people? And not just about in stadium. We’re going to start to see a lot more of that. Obviously like Microsoft, which is not a client by the way, but their deal that they’ve made [with the NBA] and how timely that is and how they’re looking at bringing the sports to fans in a new way.

Petrick
Petrick
Petrick

Adam Petrick:  One of the things we are definitely seeing is that we do feel like we have the opportunity to create that connectivity through storytelling. … It’s the culture around the sport that actually is the thing that drives the connectivity with the audience. And that can be music, it could be art, it could be fashion, it could be a million other things that fans are interested in. We have to work harder now than ever before to create those hooks for fans, if the journalists … can’t be there to help to create that connectivity. We’ve got to fill the gap by providing more varied types of content. Whether that’s things like play-lists, or providing access to unique interview moments with some of the players that represent our brands, or whatnot. … We have that opportunity to add that depth to the relationship.

NAVIGATING SENSITIVE COMMUNICATIONS DURING A PERIOD OF CRISIS:

Jewkes
Jewkes
Jewkes

Brett Jewkes:  It comes back down to the personality of the organization. And we’ve always been very aggressive — and our owner demands it — that we don’t decline interviews. He always says we’re thought leaders and we’re people who should be out there and speaking, particularly our coaches. So we’ve been pretty aggressive. I think the conservative approach early was nobody had the answers, and there were just so many unknowns. And every day the story would change or the gravity of the situation would change. And in the very early days, we shut down and were out March 11. … We had to be very careful about sending the wrong message because our political leaders, they know the power of our voice in this city. So we were aggressive in answering what we could do and making executives available. 

Baum:  We were in a similar situation. But one of the things that Peter Feigin, our president, and even Jon Horst, our general manager, we acknowledged that there are so many unknowns and we didn’t hide from it. And we said, right from the start, “We don’t have all the answers. We’re just like you. We’re learning as we’re going. The government doesn’t have all the answers.” So that was an important part of our messaging that we’re here, we’re all in this together, and we’re going to learn as we go ahead and we’ll provide you the information when we have it. … It was really important for us to be visible right from the start. So we weren’t hiding. We were part of the community, a big part of it, accessible, calm. 

One of the things that we actually did was we had players come out pretty early and speak to the media and do PSAs because they were the best spokespeople. And they’re the real people that the public wants to hear from. … And also it was important for them, right from the start, and us to applaud the front-line heroes. That was important to let people know that we appreciated what they were doing.

Widmaier:  You learn two things very quickly in this pandemic. No. 1 is the amount of audience that you truly have. So it’s not just players or fans or communities, but it’s literally the tennis pros, the owner of tennis facilities, the manufacturers, your sponsors, your television broadcasters. … They are at times minuscule audiences that are gravely important to various sports, and especially to tennis.

You want to direct your messages in smart, appropriate, and targeted means. And in the first couple of weeks, it was like a Dickensian surreal world of working so hard with nothing happening. Like, why am I working this hard? There’s nothing going on. It was incredibly difficult to parse this so you weren’t sending incorrect messaging to the wrong audiences. It was very, very difficult. 

LaPlaca:  What we dealt with in that moment was volume and instantaneous volume. We probably had 30 to 40 media people from a variety of disciplines wondering. … What are you going to televise? What’s the impact on you? What’s it going to mean for your contracts with these leagues? And we’re like, “Dude, we just found out that they’re canceling. We don’t have the answers.” The rush to judgment was really quick. And I understood it because we’re all asking ourselves the same questions. …

Our people went in a bunker and said, “All right, what are we going to televise tomorrow and the next day, and the next day?” Eventually what we did was rather than try to get to 30 or 40 people, and the list kept growing, we used our corporate blog, which was really developed 10 years ago to be a crisis management tool. And we put out, “Here’s what we’re thinking about. And here’s why we’re thinking about it. Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s why we’re going to do it.” And you saw so many outlets quote from it liberally that maybe would never do so before, but it was instantaneous. 

Favorito:  One of the things that hopefully is going to come out of this for any brand, any league, any team who maybe didn’t have communications at the top of the food chain for awhile, they’re now seeing the value that you can bring because of everything that everybody has just said. Who’s listening to the outside? Who’s listening to the inside? Who are our constituents? What messaging are we doing? Having the right people at the top advising you and listening to what’s going on is going to be more valuable going forward, especially because the dollars are going to be tighter now. 

Scott:  The reality is that one of the things I’ve seen, which has been like a hallelujah moment, has just been that in many of our clients’ setups, that they still worked in silos. So even though we look at things in an integrated, multichannel approach, many of our clients are where comms and where marketing and where digital and where they all sit, sometimes they’re at the same table. Many times they might as well be in different countries. And so I think what this forced many of our brands to do, if they weren’t already doing it, was really come together as one unit. And moving forward, that’s going to stick because right now it’s working. And it might be working because there’s less dollars. It might be working because of the situation we’re in. But I think it’s hopefully going to show brands who maybe haven’t been set up like that in the past what we’ve been preaching for the last kind of five to 10 years.

Werner:  Sports has the opportunity to not only lift spirits but solve some of the problems the pandemic has brought us. It just has so many solutions around it. The athletes, the owners, the sponsors that step forward have a ripe opportunity because sports is going to have a light on it like we haven’t seen in a long, long time. 

Scott:  I think it was sports and sports being canceled for really America to wake up and say, this is serious. I mean, because we’ve been talking about it for a little bit, but the cancellation of the Final Four, etc. Conversely, sports will play that role in bringing us back.

HOW PLANNING WILL DICTATE PR AROUND A PLAYER TESTING POSITIVE FOR COVID-19:

LaPlaca:  We’ve seen this already with UFC. … A fighter was supposed to fight on Saturday night as UFC was returning. He tested positive. … Their procedures were pretty good and this fighter had not come across anyone else. Each of those teams were sequestered in a hotel, and it became clear that the message was “our process worked.” And they pressed on. The Florida Athletic Commission supported procedures and their ability to go forward. And so the pre-planning they did saved the day for them.

Werner:  Typically the sports industry has lagged behind some other industries when it comes to crisis preparedness and scenario planning. It’s not always something that’s evergreen and discussed. But I think sports is front and center right now. And as long as they keep putting players [safety] first … they’re going to win. 

Jewkes:  If anyone’s preparing for it to not happen, they’re going to get in trouble. It’s going to happen. Everyone has to prepare for it. One thing that I think the story is probably not being told well enough is we automatically jump to the venues where games are, but these practice facilities where our football players or our soccer players are all during the week, that’s where the lion’s share of the efforts are being put right now, at least at this stage of the game. … How do you keep them as safe as possible? How do you allow them to train well enough to be game ready and all those things? And I think we’ll get a lot of learning out of that process that will translate to the stadiums and game day. 

Widmaier:  This is like the classic communication 101. You have a high-risk
situation potentially, so you have a plan. … Brett, you’re 100% right. It’s inevitable that somebody will test positive. But do you think that we’ll start seeing a shift in the public perception toward more of a risk tolerance if they believe your plan was a good plan?

Favorito:  I talked to a bunch of people on the political side and one of the things that’s been said is people will forgive you for trying. The thing that people are having a difficulty [with] is people who are not acting going forward. … I think what people don’t want is the chaos. And that’s why the preparation that will go into it and the readiness that will happen with a league, a team, a brand, a national governing body when something happens, that there will be a response. … Don’t forget, the Bundesliga had half a team in one of the lower levels test positive, and they figured out how to do it. And it worked out. Now, if that affects the competitive balance of the NBA during the playoffs or the NHL during the playoffs, that’s another whole issue.

Petrick:  It’s also about everybody having a holistic team approach, because you can have a plan, and we all have plans. … Those plans get thrown out the window at a moment’s notice constantly. And it’s good you’ve done the plan, but if everybody knows what their role is and everybody’s sitting at the table together, we can adapt to the changing environment and create a new plan on the fly. And I think that for our organization, we’ve had so many different dynamics, whether it was our own retail chains or our wholesalers or our suppliers. We’ve built so many scenarios and rebuilt them and rebuilt them and rebuilt them because at least we’re getting new information all the time. But when everybody’s sitting together, you have comms and you have marketing and you have product creation, you have distribution, where everybody’s sitting together and you can kind of improvise based on the plans you’ve built, that’s the best solution. So that holistic approach is super important.

ON ESPN’S MESSAGING AROUND EXECUTIVE AND TALENT SALARY CUTS:

 LaPlaca:  Disney had instituted and ESPN, all of us at ESPN, were absolutely on board with an executive pay cut. As time went on, we felt like what else can we do to manage our workforce in such a way that we can keep it intact. It became clear that going to our talent — our culture was pretty strong. … It was a lot of people who get paid fairly well, comparatively speaking, making sacrifices so we could keep the team intact. We actually adopted an internal slogan, “We Are One Team.”

We were not going to make any announcements about any of this. We understood it was going to get out. When it did, we will just handle everything on background. One thing led to another and it landed really well. Our employees responded in such a way that you should see the message board on our internal website, it was crazy. It was crazy good. It was really a moment in time where the culture of our place was really pretty strong going in. It got stronger as a result of the sacrifices made by the executives and by our talent. 

ON ADVISING CLIENTS WHO HAVE HAD FURLOUGHS, LAYOFFS AND CUTBACKS:

 Scott:  The tone was really important in terms of striking the right balance of empathy and understanding. In many cases, really looking at, from the top down, how was everything being done to either avoid the furlough or if that had to happen, how was that being positioned. … This wasn’t just a crisis, this was a crisis of humanity. Our advice to our clients was be real, be empathetic. You’re a person first and we’re all in this together. So, the communication really needs to follow that. Also, with as much detail as possible in terms of what was decided, why it was decided and what the next steps were.

 Werner:  As we’ve stated before, there are no secrets anymore, so you might as well address the situation in as humane way as possible. … We were advising a litany of senior executives to go out there with honest opinions, but also being very transparent that their first response on the topic of furloughs would not be their last basically. So, go out with what you know at the time and you can always come back to it at a later point because it wasn’t a topic that was going to go away the next day.

HOW TO COMMUNICATE PLANS FOR A RETURN TO PLAY:

 Widmaier:  I would tell you what is happening with the 2020 U.S. Open if I could, but I can’t. But, I know what everybody wants to know. Just like they want to know, well, what’s the NBA doing? What’s the NFL doing? What’s MLS doing? What’s the NHL doing? What is all of sports? People want to know now, but there’s no direct true answer right now. 

I’m going to state the obvious here. … Every one of our decisions are being made with safety and health at the forefront. So, we have a medical advisory group we have to hear. They need to be talking to their colleagues. There’s an infectious specialist from Mount Sinai and the chief medical officer of the NCAA and doctors from the NBA. We’re represented around every sport in all entities. We need to hear what they’re saying. What have they learned? Where is that tipping point where we can mitigate the risk to the point where this is a viable event? You know what? On May 19, I don’t have that answer for you at this moment. I think it’s coming, but not at this moment.

HOW THE INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE AND THE U.S. OLYMPIC & PARALYMPIC COMMITTEE HANDLED MESSAGING AROUND TOKYO 2020:

 Scott:  I might be in the minority on this, but I actually respected what the [IOC President Thomas] Bach and the IOC said in terms of needing to evaluate it. [A month] felt like an eternity when every day the world was imploding, so to speak, with the pandemic. Although the intention was right to give some time to make that decision, I think that ultimately wound up being a negative and where many of the family and outside of the family came after him. But look, it’s a big deal to cancel the Olympics. … It is a big decision and it wasn’t one to be taken lightly. I respect that there was a desire to take the time.

As every day happened and then it became the thought that they weren’t thinking about the athletes … it wound up backfiring, ultimately. From the USOPC standpoint, I think they did the right thing by polling the athletes before they responded. Yes, that meant they were a couple of days behind like USA Swimming. … But I think they did the right thing by doing that. 

HOW TO COMMUNICATE ABOUT TOKYO 2021 AMID THE CONTINUED SKEPTICISM:

 Favorito:  There’s going to be a lot of contingency plans that you’re going to see about whether things are going to happen and when they’re going to happen, but everybody now can’t predict what’s going to happen in two weeks, let alone 18 months from now. … Now that people have literally lived through this for the last couple of months, I think people will be a little bit more empathetic going forward. But, it’s going forward until someone tells you that it’s not. I don’t think anybody can say either way for sure right now, but there’s a plan in place and I think you’ve got to try and work off the plan.

 Scott:  We preach to our clients at the beginning and we still are, it’s solving, not selling, and knowing how to play the right tonality. Of course, that evolves as we talk about business getting back. But look, there’s so many more factors now, too, because many businesses have been really affected by the pandemic. And so, what does that mean to the state of the business? Where are we with opening stores again and opening business again? Yes, in some cases there’s an opportunity to step up and step in ways that you haven’t. In other ways I’ve been saying, look, the runway could be even longer. And because I think these Games, when they happen, are going to be more spectacular than we thought they would be because of what it’s going to mean and stand for when that happens.

HOW THE FALCONS MANAGED THEIR UNIFORM REVEAL WHILE SPORTS WERE SHUT DOWN:

 Jewkes:  Everybody would tell you that they had a different plan for how they were going to launch it, because, if any of you know anything about that situation, it’s a three-year process to do a uniform change. And so I think we were scheduled to go on like April 14 or something. And as soon as March 12 hit, we already started thinking about, how do you go digital if we have to do that? Of course at the time, we didn’t know how long the shutdown would be. And to be honest, there was a lot of talk internally about, is this appropriate? Should we be doing this in this time frame? And I think the NFL pretty early on said, if we’re going to do business as usual, we’re going to go forward with free agency, we’re going to go forward with the draft, etc.

Our video views on our digital platforms were up 993%, which was just a clear indicator that our fans wanted content and they wanted anything that would be a distraction from the daily bad news that they were getting about this pandemic. So we ultimately made the choice to go late March and our fans, after the fact, thanked us for doing it. … But they also voted at the online store. We did a record day — ever — in the history of the Falcons, second only to the day we clinched to go to the Super Bowl in 2017. … It was a big thing for all of sport, because you saw the appetite for fans and consumption on digital and television, the draft, everything else. And so it ended up being a big success for us.