Aaron Salkin loves football. He's built many loyal relationships. Both qualities will come into play as he takes the PR reigns with the 49ers, a team struggling on and off the field.The tale of Aaron Salkin's career reads like a Horatio Alger story, minus the British accents and shoeshine booths. From lowly equipment boy to the - well, not rarefied, but certainly exclusive - heights of professional sports PR, Salkin has rocketed up the ladder thanks to good old-fashioned pluck.
He grew up in Massachusetts, played high school football, and made his way to Syracuse University. His passion for football wouldn't take him to the NFL as a player, but he had another route in mind. "I wanted NFL PR," he says. "If it wasn't NFL PR, I was not going to do it."
Salkin worked with the Syracuse football program, handling off-the-field tasks. And then, in one of those serendipitous chances that arise in life only a few times, he saw his opening: Syracuse's head football coach Dick MacPherson was hired to coach the New England Patriots, his de facto hometown squad.
Pat Hanlon, VP of communications with the New York Giants and head of PR for the Patriots at the time, remembers Salkin's appearance on the scene well. "To this day, he claims that [MacPherson] was responsible for getting him hired as an intern in the Patriots' PR department," he recalls. "If I had to swear to it, I would swear that Mac never even mentioned Aaron to me."
Instead, Hanlon says, Salkin gained his position (while still in school) through persistence. "He badgered me relentlessly to at least sit down and talk to him, and [said] he'd be willing to work for free," Hanlon says. "When he walked out of the office, the people who worked with me full time looked at me and said, 'He's not going to work with us is he?' And I said, 'The hell he's not.'"
Salkin was so impressive that when Hanlon left the Patriots to take the top PR job with the Giants, he brought Salkin with him. "I quickly realized that if I wanted to do everything I wanted to do, I needed another set of hands, and Aaron was the logical choice," says Hanlon. He hired Salkin, fresh out of Syracuse, as a "season-long intern," and by mid-season had bumped him up to the number two position in the Giants' PR department.
Salkin spent five years with the Giants, but at the age of 27, he finally landed what he had always wanted: a top PR position in the NFL. He joined the Atlanta Falcons as head of PR under head coach Dan Reeves.
The job, though, was far from perfect. The Falcons organization was beset by personality conflicts at its upper levels, which Salkin says led to his departure from the team last year. "The head coach and the owner did not get along, which put me in a tough, tough situation, one that I never saw coming," he said. "I could not stab a guy like Dan Reeves in the back and then look at myself in the mirror."
Some observers speculated that Salkin left the team for another reason, though. Shortly before his departure, he was quoted in a news story comparing the media to "leeches," which landed him in hot water with some members of the area press corps. But the comment was made in the context of a running joke, says Salkin, and was not the big deal that it was made out to be. "I just tell those people to call the Atlanta media and say, 'Hey, what do you think of Aaron. And I think they'd tell you, 'He always got it straight.'"
Besides, many might agree with Salkin's assessment of the media.
In any case, Salkin left Atlanta and spent six months on the job hunt before landing the top PR job with the San Francisco 49ers. Once again, his connections gave him an edge: Mike Nolan, the 49ers' head coach, was formerly a defensive coordinator with the Giants when Salkin was with the team. But he hardly stepped in to a cushy position; his immediate predecessor, Kirk Reynolds, had been at the center of controversy when someone leaked a media training tape he had prepared for the team that included degrading comments about various ethnic and social groups. The fact that he had borrowed the mayor's office to make the film didn't help at all, either.
Now, Salkin has the responsibility for repairing the damage done to the team's community relations while handling the laundry list of day-to-day responsibilities of any NFL PR executive. "We are basically [the players'] media coach," he explains. "Every day, we have space in the paper for the 49ers. Now it's just a matter of what's going to be filled up in that space."
To drive the point home to players, he appeals to one interest that gets everyone's attention: their wallets. "We have a salary cap. That salary cap is based on the overall gross income of the NFL," he says. "The better job we do of publicizing the NFL, the higher that number goes. The higher that number goes, the higher the overall percentage of your salary goes, which means that number will go up."
Though he has only been in his new position a few months, Salkin has already faced a major crisis. Thomas Herrion, a 49ers player, collapsed and died in the locker room following a preseason game. "Obviously, this was a crisis beyond anything I could have ever imagined. We all had to witness this, which was tough," he says.
But he was able to draw a lesson for the future from the tragedy. "You need to have a crisis plan. You need to have the right people. You need to have the right organizational structure and the right support network to get through any crisis."
At 34, Salkin has already reached the top of his field (if you don't take the team's record into consideration). His is a job with no off-season, but his passion for the game makes it easy for him to wake up early every day and get to work (he conducted his PRWeek interview at 6am and didn't slur any words).
"He's the guy that will make the coffee in the morning and will turn the lights out at night," Hanlon says. "He loves the game of football."
2005-present PR director, San Francisco 49ers
1999-2004 Head of PR, Atlanta Falcons
1993-1998 Assistant VP of communications, New York Giants
1991-1992 PR intern, New England Patriots