Fidelzeid: Look beyond the box score to admire sports communicators

Sports communications leaders have never had an easy job - and that difficulty has grown in the social media age.

I recently spoke with the top communications person at a major sports entity. He shared a lament with me I found fascinating. He explained that at a recent gathering of PR leaders, a reaction he received was, "There’s that sports PR guy." Mind you, this was an individual with an impressive resume of agency and in-house posts.

Insulting? No. Dismissive? Maybe a touch. However, it captured a sentiment some people might share: sports communicators have a job nowhere near as challenging as those who ply their trade at, say, a Fortune 500 company. Penalty. Fifteen yards for underappreciating.

I’ve been observing the PR sector for more than a decade. I’ve spent time with sports communications leaders – at roundtables, over lunches, and so on. They have never had an easy job – and that difficulty has grown in the social media age.

Sure, certain factors might prompt some to gloss over the complexities of sports PR. Few industries can be as fun to work in as sports. With scant exceptions, sports entities are privately held, so there are no shareholders to whom one must answer. However, fun and private does not equal easy.

Let’s take the chief communicator of a pro sports team. In what other business does one have to deal with so many beat reporters who watch their teams’ every move every second?

Seth Burton is the VP of communications at the Los Angeles Clippers. He works for an owner whose recent racist rants created an incredibly trying situation. Burton faced the unenviable position of communicating both for and, to some extent, against the man who signs his paycheck. Does that seem simple?

Let’s bring the league-level CCO into the discussion. What other communicator has to work in an environment where he or she has hundreds of ambassadors (read: pro athletes) with millions of Twitter followers? That’s a crisis around every corner waiting to happen.

The public’s passion plays a role, too. Sports fans consume news voraciously and communicators are the ones who both feed that hunger and monitor reactions to the content they help serve up.

This misperception is nowhere near an epidemic. When agency veteran Paul Hicks holds the top comms post at the NFL, it displays an understanding of the qualifications needed for the role. I’m not implying the sports communicator’s job is harder than anyone else’s in PR. It is, however, undeniably in the same ballpark.  

Gideon Fidelzeid is managing editor of PRWeek. He can be reached at gideon.fidelzeid@prweek.com.

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