When Super Bowl XLV concluded on February 6, 2011, the prospect of no football the following season had millions of fans despondent. On March 3, the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners expired and the prospects for resolution seemed bleak.
However, while some highly visible owners and superstar athletes dominated the headlines, a key player in this drama was Paul Hicks, EVP of communications and public affairs at the NFL, who was hired in late July 2010 mainly to assist in efforts to end the then-looming impasse.
"Paul had experience where we needed it," notes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who specifically sought an external hire for the role. "He had a broad business and public affairs perspective from outside sports, but also understood the game. I knew his learning curve wouldn't be steep."
"Part of the players' union's strategy was to politicize this issue," explains Hicks, who joined the NFL after nearly 15 years at Ogilvy PR Worldwide, most recently as regional CEO of the Americas. "They wanted Congress to be involved and I had an understanding of how to do business in Washington. I'd been a lobbyist. I'd hired lobbyists. I've fired lobbyists. So I had knowledge of the process."
In recalling the labor ordeal, Hicks underscores the NFL's longstanding appreciation of communications, a philosophy that starts at the top. He deems that an invaluable factor in efforts that ultimately helped the league resolve the situation in late July with the loss of just one exhibition game.
"Roger began at the NFL as a PR intern," notes Hicks. "He focuses on the league's brand and reputation more than the outside world thinks. People in our business always say, 'We need a seat at the table.' Well, I sit 50 feet away from him. He walks by here 10 times a day. The communicators here have as many seats at the table as necessary. That's a wonderful asset for this job."
During the four-and-a-half month impasse, Hicks was the personification of "24/7."
"What the media saw was just the tip of the iceberg," he suggests. "Other than not sleeping much, I looked at my BlackBerry every 15 minutes, which puts a burden on you strategically. Like with chess pieces, if they go here, we go there. You're constantly running ideas in your mind. I have a desk drawer full of plans that were never used because those circumstances didn't happen, or they did and we went in a different direction. Even in seemingly quiet periods, we were planning."
National Football League, EVP of communications and public affairs
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, various posts. Began as the New York corporate practice director (1996-1998); became MD of the global corporate practice (1998-2000); was promoted to MD of the New York office (2000-2002), and then regional CEO of the Americas (2002-2010)
UST, director of public affairs
US Rep. Stewart McKinney, Washington, DC, chief of staff
Keeping the fans in mind
While the players and owners battled to ensure their best interests were kept top of mind, there was a crucial third party to account for - the fans. When any major sport is involved in a crisis - such as the work stoppages with the NFL and, more recently, the NBA - much punditry is devoted to reminding the leagues and players to consider the folks who cheer them on and, basically, fund them.
"We are incredibly attuned to fan opinion," emphasizes Hicks. "We were very cognizant that a scorched-earth policy as it relates to fans would hurt the game and its ability to grow over time."
The NFL conducted focus groups, surveys, and Goodell-led fan chats to keep its pulse on public sentiment while gauging the "reasonableness of our arguments, but also to simply listen and learn," notes Hicks, adding that he is "amazed" at how informed NFL fans are not only about their favorite teams, but also about the league, the rules, even the equipment. "Nobody at the NFL takes it for granted," he says.
With a 10-year labor deal now in place, Hicks' focus is on myriad other fronts. Immediately after the lockout ended, he reorganized his team to devote more manpower to get the story out about the NFL's broad efforts regarding player health and safety, particularly concussions. In addition, he is currently examining the league's philanthropic endeavors and he continues to develop international strategy.
Five years ago, the NFL began scheduling one regular-season game a year in London. It has committed to doing so through at least 2016, with the possibility of extending it to two contests a year.
"There's still a lot to be done on this front," acknowledges Hicks, "but the NFL believes there's something there."
The one NFL offering that has done the most to put the game on a global stage is the Super Bowl, which is being held this year on February 5 in Indianapolis. Last year's game in Arlington, TX, was actually the first Super Bowl Hicks attended. It was certainly a memorable indoctrination.
"There's nothing like it in the world," Hicks asserts. "It's the center of the sporting universe for a few days. There's an energy there that is unmatched by anything I'd ever witnessed."
A well-documented crisis arose when a snowstorm hit the Dallas area days before last year's big game. The damage to the stadium led to hundreds of ticket-holders being informed they could not be accommodated.
"We certainly learned some lessons from that," admits Hicks, who notes that he was among 80 or so colleagues who called every person affected by the seating snafu to figure out how to make amends. Commissioner Goodell called about 20 people himself. All displaced individuals were given a choice of three make-good programs to compensate for the inconvenience and disappointment.
Hicks is certainly no stranger to crisis. In 2001, while at Ogilvy, the firm lost a significant amount of money and staff. Both he and Marcia Silverman, retired chairman and former CEO, were promoted in August 2002 and played key roles in facilitating a turnaround. "At one point," he notes, "we were the largest, most profitable firm in the US among WPP's stable of PR agencies."
Carrying the ball
The term "dream job" is often thrown around, but in Hicks' case, the description fits.
"Apparently," says his former CEO at Ogilvy Marcia Silverman, "Paul walked around with a football all the time when he was a kid."
Hicks played in organized youth leagues, junior high, and high school. He even walked on at the University of Virginia, though his time on the team only lasted about 20 days.
"I made Rudy look like an All-American," he jokes, referring to the famous Notre Dame player who was the subject of a popular 1993 film.
Though he hasn't played for many years, the pigskin is never far from his reach.
"I have two brothers with whom I go on a trip once a year," notes the Illinois-born Hicks, who retains a deep affection for the Chicago Bears. "I bring a football and we still throw it around, even at our age."
Leading the team
"Paul was extremely helpful inside," notes Silverman. "He is a tremendous leader and a great strategist. He is also one of the best hirers I've ever worked with."
"Even today, I still often reflect on lessons I learned from Paul," adds Barby Siegel, current CEO of Zeno Group, who Hicks hired from Edelman in March 2003 to lead Ogilvy's consumer marketing practice. "He taught me how to spot talent, nurture it, and respect what everyone brings to the table."
While Hicks has not had to sharpen his recruiting skills during his NFL stint - "We have very little turnover here," he says, "particularly in PR" - his mentoring acumen has been demonstrated often.
At both Ogilvy and the NFL, Hicks made certain every staffer, regardless of rank, was given a BlackBerry.
"It's tough to ask someone to come in on a Saturday," he explains. "But if you ask them to answer an email from home on a weekend, it's much easier. And it only takes one email to make a client believe you care about their business. When you handle a client's problem at an off-hour, that person gets a view of your responsiveness that's significant. Add that up many times over and it becomes embedded in the culture."
In his year and a half at the NFL, Hicks has already impacted the league on various levels. And Goodell sees that continuing.
"It's sometimes called the 'NFL PR machine' and we take that as a compliment," he says. "As a business, the NFL was built on the game and PR. Now, it is much more complex and Paul's team has proved to be very nimble in anticipating changes and evolving our strategic direction."