Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing New York Yankees PR veteran Jason Zillo speak at a PRSA-NY event. In the days leading up to it, multiple people said to me, "His job must be a piece of cake," but that’s far from the truth.
Yes, it’s true that Zillo, executive director of comms and media relations, never struggles to get press for the Major League Baseball team, but since the media coverage is so extensive, he has to make sure the players are prepared for and know how to react to all types of questions – especially those related to social issues, controversies, and tragedies.
"When [NBA player] Jason Collins came out as gay – because we’re the Yankees – a lot of world news outlets, like NBC and CBS, came here because they wanted to hear what someone from the Yankees has to say about that sort of social commentary," said Zillo, who has been with the team for more than 20 years.
He added that media outlets even reached out to players for comment following the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, three years ago that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children. Because some of the players on the team are from the south and are pro gun, Zillo had to make sure they were very careful with their remarks.
Every spring, Zillo said he shows the team a 30-minute media training video. In order to keep the players’ attention, the film includes examples of athletes doing something right and others doing something wrong.
"It usually gets a lot of laughs," he noted. "A lot of guys will text me in the off-season and say, ‘Did you see this clip on YouTube? It needs to be in the video next year,’ so we really run with it."
Zillo added that it’s a little easier to media train younger athletes who are still forming habits than those who are already big-name players and have their own way of doing things. (However, he did note that he takes zero credit for Derek Jeter’s "innate ability to connect with people.")
Another challenge is quickly coordinating information – especially on sensitive topics – with the long line of people involved, such as the general manager, manager, player, and team trainer.
"If a player gets hurt in the 5th inning and is taken out of the game, the media wants to know what happened," explained Zillo. "A lot of times, we’re not going to know right away. Even if we do have that information, we must be very careful with how we disseminate it."
During the Q&A portion of the event last Wednesday, one attendee asked Zillo, "Have you ever had to work really hard to get a story told?" – Yet another person alluding to his job being easy.
But Zillo had an answer. The most difficult stories for him to get full coverage on are charity-related. Most of the time, media will mention a philanthropic initiative or event in one line of a story and use the other 400 words to discuss the players and the team.
Since HOPE Week – which stands for Helping Others Persevere and Excel – launched in 2009, Zillo has been hard at work to get the event more coverage. Each year, every player participates in the program to honor and celebrate accomplishments of individuals, families, and organizations. The week-long activation kicks off again on August 17.
Social media was a topic Zillo didn’t touch on much during the session – admittedly, on purpose, he said, because he would need at least another hour to talk about it.
What he did say is that when social media started becoming big, he did his best to steer the players away from it, but he has "lost that war" for the most part.
"It’s such a slippery slope," he noted. "It’s terrible because I feel so old school about it, but, in my estimation, there’s very little benefit and the pitfalls are so much further than any highs an athlete is going to get from being on social media."
He added that he and his colleagues typically have to call a few minor league players a week after seeing something they posted on social to say, "What are you doing?"
Aside from its obstacles, including having to be away from his family on many weekends and holidays, Zillo told the audience that he loves his job, which makes everything worth it.
The Yankees are absolutely a global entity that stretches beyond the bounds of baseball and New York, so from a brand awareness and press perspective, Zillo has hit a home run.
But it’s important to remember PR is about much more than media impressions – touching everything from crises and reputation to CSR and social media – so pro sports communicators always have to be ready for the next curve ball that comes their way.