Interview: Jim Woodcock

Fleishman-Hillard SVP

Fleishman-Hillard SVP

Jim Woodcock, SVP and director of the agency's sports business practice, recently re-joined the firm after working with a most difficult situation: handling communications for a sports team during a season cancelled due to a lockout.

As SVP of marketing and communications for the NHL's St. Louis Blues, he had to counsel despondent Blues fans as days and months passed without one game played. Woodcock spoke to PRWeek.com about what he learned from that experience, what he expects from Fleishman's sports practice, and how crisis communications fits into every PR discipline.

Q: What will be your key challenges starting up this new practice?

A: One of the short-term challenges will be to convey our message and market our brand to sports franchises, sponsors, athletes or organized bodies. We will talk about how [those entities] need what we provide because there are few, if any, industries that have experienced the sharp turns that sports has. I would offer that the sports environment is as unpredictable as it comes. Several years ago, the notion of steroids consuming the news hole seemed pretty unlikely. But we learned differently this year. With the Rafael Palmeiro news [that the baseball star - and potential future Hall of Famer - tested positive for steroids] this week, the storyline has been taken to a new level. The [steroid] news now runs deeper than just any player, team, or league. Every entity is vulnerable to the steroids question now. The better teams and organizations will rely, at least in part, on expert counsel as they measure how to deal with these kinds of issues. It's not just the steroids issue [affecting sports today]; it could be team performance, trades, bankruptcy, franchise sales, or crisis communications issues. Given the strength of the news media today, it makes sense to have a well-equipped communications strategy.

Q: It seems the sports industry today has had its share of crisis. Do you think that sports practices need to have strength in that discipline?

A: You better have experience in it. It's not the sort of discipline where it's a good idea to learn on the job. It's just something that clients need to have. When we were doing the marketing and PR plans for Budweiser at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, they asked for our crisis communications strategies. Candidly, it seemed like a nuisance at the time. But when the bombing occurred in Centennial Park, we were ready to unveil our crisis communications plan. Those plans were subsequently executed in excellent form. That kind of experience is invaluable. Clients and/or PR agencies that think there isn't a need for that, [and those in the sports industry] are really fooling themselves because we unfortunately live in an era where a crisis can occur [anywhere].

Q: What did you learn from last year's cancelled NHL season?

A: The lesson to be learned is that if you're sure you are doing the right thing, you should stick with the plan. We expressed [that] we understood fans' disappointment, but asked that they stick with us. We knew we were doing the right thing: the NHL and virtually all of its member clubs were united in the belief that a dramatic correction was necessary to reposition the league. It required a massive sacrifice and the cancellation of the season, but I don't think anyone at the league or the club is second-guessing that decision. But the cancellation announcement really brought everyone together in the name of making the game better.

Q: The NHL doesn't have the media celebrities that other sports leagues have. Is this the result of a media disinterest or were the teams and league failing to promote those players?

A: It was a little of both. Hockey players and the NHL have been terrific ambassadors of the game, but, over time, everyone got a bit casual and started overlooking opportunities to do things like microphone players and put cameras on the bench. In time, other sports bypassed us [in player accessibility]. A terrific byproduct of the season cancellation is [allowing the league] to correct that. The media has a [renewed] hunger to promote these players.

Q: Would you say NHL players are a bit more team oriented and, thus, harder to promote as individual superstars?

A: When you see an NHL player score a goal, even the most dramatic celebration pales in comparison to what you see on the gridiron. Neither is right, nor wrong. Hockey is a graceful and electric sport, yet players are very careful to not show up the opponent and/or steal the limelight from their teammates. The league again has taken some steps to push for a greater awareness and promotion of the players as individuals going forward

Q: How is the interaction with the sports media compared to others?

A: The sports media provides a different climate than other media. There's a lot more hanging around with players at things like batting practice, morning skates, and shoot arounds. That permits better relationships between players and the media. It's a terrific environment for both entities.

Q: Do you think Fleishman's sports practice has a lot of work in store to get the practice up and running?

A: I immediately learned upon arriving that not only do we have an impressive lineup of clients, but we have a wealth of talented executives servicing these clients who know sports well. In essence, the components for a sports practice have been in place for some time. But we haven't formulated it as an area of strength or marketed ourselves as such. My immediate goal is to do both. We want to position ourselves as the standard-bearer in the sports area in not only communications, but also counsel for strategy, marketing, and sponsorship. We want to be a versatile, nimble agency.

Q: Since Fleishman has already done sports work for clients, is a major part of the practice establishment to attract new business?

A: There are potential new clients in North America and throughout the world that are probably unaware of our good work in the sports industry. We've done a terrific job in marketing ourselves in other industries, be it healthcare or other industries. The sport work has been percolating under the surface. When I was exploring my return to Fleishman, I wasn't aware that we had as much strength as we currently have [in sports]. I thought it might be a from-scratch project, but it's not at all. The task ahead of us right now is to try our strengths together and market ourselves as an agency with significant sports marketing and business prowess.

Q: Have you gauged the competitive landscape?

A: My short-term goal is getting our practice equipped for success. I'm not as concerned right now as to what other agencies are doing, although I respect the work they've done for their clients. Competition is healthy for everyone. But I'm trained on building the framework right now. We're doing tremendous work for clients and have significant new business at our doorstep right now.

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