Mansur keeps a cool head to steer NHL's recovery

Bernadette Mansur, group comms VP for the National Hockey League, has survived her share of sports crises. Now her calm, focused approach is helping the league rebound after its lockout.

Bernadette Mansur, group comms VP for the National Hockey League, has survived her share of sports crises. Now her calm, focused approach is helping the league rebound after its lockout.

In sports, perhaps more so than any other industry, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

Until 2004, no one could fathom baseball's New York Yankees blowing a 3-0 American League Championship Series lead to the Boston Red Sox. No doubt, there are young boys in some developing nation wearing 2004 Yankees American League Champions T-shirts. (Playoff teams always print up shirts because the winner's apparel needs to be available immediately upon victory. To the loser, that apparel is banished to needy children that don't care about incorrect appellations.)

Until 2004, no one could conceive of a pro-sports league canceling a full season. But the National Hockey League did just that.

If you've been in pro sports long enough, the notion of a sure thing grows more ludicrous each day. Few know this better than Bernadette Mansur, group VP of communications with the NHL and executive director of the NHL Foundation. The lockout was actually not her first foray into sports crises.

In the summer of 1992, Reebok launched an intensive, multimillion-dollar ad campaign pitting two American men with American names - Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson - against each other for the decathlon at the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games.

Fate respects not the 30-second spot, and an injury during the trials felled O'Brien and threatened to do likewise to Reebok's marketing campaign.

But Mansur, who was VP of corporate communications at the time, says her group immediately switched course. Tapping the empathy of the nation - not to mention both athletes' good humor - the effort continued, with O'Brien supporting Johnson's quest for gold. Unfortunately, an injury at the Olympics forced Johnson to settle for the bronze.

David Nobs, MD at Ruder Finn, first worked with Mansur while he was at Cohn & Wolfe and she was with RF client Reebok. He recalls how Mansur wasted no time in setting up a news conference where a congenial O'Brien addressed a 200-strong media contingent.
The PR reps immediately met with Reebok's ad agency, Chiat\Day (now TBWA\Chiat\Day), to discuss altering the campaign. Chiat\Day created an ad of Johnson hugging O'Brien, showcasing a multitude of emotions, and the PR team made it available as b-roll.

Nobs cites that as just one example of Mansur's impressive understanding of how sports events can quickly and unexpectedly turn into national news events.

"She has an ability to think fast on her feet and turn a [negative] into a positive as soon as possible," says Nobs, who also worked with the NHL when the league hired Rogers & Cowan (R&C) earlier this year.

Mansur's corporate career began in marketing and product development at Avon. She quickly noticed the strong communications between Avon's freelance sellers, but there was no actual PR unit. By the time she left for Reebok, she led Avon's newly created marketing communications division.

Mansur attributes her grace under pressure to the first job she held after college, working with handicapped and autistic children. "It taught me to remain calm and focused," she says. "It was wonderful, but very intense."

With all of those experiences under her belt, Mansur struggled to remain calm when the NHL locked out its players after a collective bargaining agreement expired, eventually leading to the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season. The crisis hit home for Mansur, who joined the NHL in 1993 as VP of corporate communications.

She endured an NHL lockout her second season, but it was eventually resolved and the season, albeit shortened, was saved.

"She has significant experience in dealing with different issues in different areas," says Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises. "She brings clarity to the discussion. There's no doubt that her ability to provide clarity and create focus has definitely been refined."

Mansur says the NHL was forthcoming about its economic situation since day one, showing its dire financial situation to the world years before the season-long lockout.
"At Reebok, I learned that you must have a down-to-earth vision and transparency," she says. "Spin doesn't work.

"Was it easy to document your losses to The Wall Street Journal? No," but it was necessary, Mansur continues.

Of all the lockout-related disappointments, Mansur's greatest was having to let staff go. Fortunately, she proudly reports, they all found good jobs - a testament to their hard work - and hers.

In fact, despite the lost season, Mansur says that she worked more hours during the lockout than ever before.

"I was on duty constantly," she recalls. "I routinely got press calls asking, 'The union says this. What is your position?'"

When the lockout finally ended, Mansur knew the NHL had a unique opportunity to relaunch, but she also realized that a failed campaign could be the league's death knell. To avoid that, it hired a slew of firms to highlight the sport's entertainment aspects and the rules changes that increased the flow of games. One of those agencies was R&C.

"She's talked about positioning the league as an entertainment [entity] and about leveraging the celebrity status for key players," says Tom Tardio, CEO at R&C. "She didn't pull out the old game book to manage PR at a league."

"Her fingerprints are on everything we did to relaunch," Horne says.

Outside of the obvious joys of helping facilitate the return of a sport she loves, Mansur is proudest of helping restore a long-forgotten ritual to the constituents she values the most: the fans.

She helped the league reinstate the lost tradition of letting each player spend a day with the Stanley Cup, the league's championship trophy. Most players now take the cup to their hometowns, where fans can actually enjoy it up-close with their local heroes.

Sitting at her desk these days, surrounded by hockey and sporting memorabilia, Mansur speaks proudly of how the cup has now visited 21 countries and encountered countless fans.

"That is what the cup is about," Mansur proclaims. And with Mansur captaining that effort, the league's chances look a lot more promising. Maybe it's even a sure thing.

Bernadette Mansur

1999-present
NHL, group VP, communications; executive director of NHL Foundation

1998-1999
NHL, VP of communications

1993-1998
NHL, VP of corporate communications

1989-1993
Reebok, VP of corporate communications

1974-1988
Avon Products, director of marketing communications

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