CMO Q&A: Brian Jennings, NHL

NHL's Brian Jennings speaks to Lindsay Stein about how the league has evolved and how it communicates directly with fans on social media.

How does PR and marketing work at the National Hockey League?
We work hand in hand, although PR and marketing are two separate units. When you think about marcomms for any league, it's vital we work together from the planning stages all the way to execution.

Anything marketing is doing, we make sure our PR and communications department is aware of it so they can make sure there's good exposure for it. The communications team reports to Gary Meagher, the head of our PR unit. He and I both report to the commissioner, Gary Bettman (below).

In any good organization there is one common goal. I'm a big fan of author Peter Drucker and one of his famous quotes is, "The goal of any business is to create a customer." In our case, we create and serve the fan. From a marketing perspective, we take that seriously and try to be the voice of the fan from within the walls of the NHL.

How has the NHL evolved into a media company?
It's an interesting evolution versus being a licensing company, where your primary collateral is your intellectual property. You can argue that we were more of a licensing entity in the past than a media company.

Now when you look at the channels of social media,, and the NHL TV network, you start to see the transformation of a business becoming more of a media company and creating its own content. That is what is really exciting right now. As a marketer, it's that blurred line between what is a campaign and what is content that you are creating for your fans.

An example is NHL 36 on NBC, which follows the footsteps of all the great work HBO has done with long form and dramatic documentary-style content that brings fans in to get to know the players a lot more, both on and off the ice. As a sport, players are our greatest asset, and they are the ones that put our fans in the seats.

How do you leverage social media?
The power of social media is that it is a two-way dialogue and the fans definitely let you know. We were the first league with a Facebook page, which launched in March 2009. Today we have about 2.8 million likes on the page. We were early adopters of Twitter, which we created in July 2009, and we have our own YouTube channel that is programmed with NHL content.

We are always looking for ways to make sure hockey fans are being super served with all the information they need for their enjoyment of the game.

Hockey, if you look at traditional media channels, has not been necessarily covered the way fans would have liked. With social media we can have a direct relationship with our fans. When you have that, it's a powerful tool, but you also have to recognize that it is a two-way street. When they respond or if there's something they don't like, you have to be out in front and respond back so you can set the record straight.

How did you communicate during the lockout last year?
It's one of the most difficult things for a business to go through when you shut down your operation, but where we got high marks was not only how we stayed in touch with our fans, but that we kept in contact with our teams and business partners. We needed to make sure our teams were well versed in all the things we had going on.

There were our television and media partners, licensees, and sponsors who needed to be communicated with and given access to people, such as our commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Most complex is the fans. Instinctively, we knew they did not want to hear about hockey-related revenue or work-stop. You have just taken away something they are passionate about, so they are angry.

We made a decision early on that we were going to cover the Players Association and the league's side and be neutral with our coverage. We didn't want to be a propaganda channel. Ultimately, as much as the fans were frustrated, we were overwhelmed with how quickly they came back and we were very grateful for their loyalty.

Tell me about the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
We'll shut our league down for about two weeks and our players will go and represent their countries. It's something of great pride to our players and it's amazing exposure for the NHL and our partners, both CBC in Canada and NBC in the US. Producing content around the Olympics is one of the biggest things we've had talks about.

Twenty-six percent of our players come from overseas. The websites are dedicated internationally in seven languages so fans can take important content and customize and personalize it. We will also have camera crews on the planes as the players go over, which is exciting. One day you are teammates and friends, the next you are a combatant, representing your country.

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