Howard Bragman, founder and chairman of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations, prepared the University of Missouri senior defensive lineman for the announcement, and he has supported more than a dozen celebrities and athletes when they came out in the past.
While Bragman helped Sam get ready for questions he'd be asked in interviews, he also prepared the college football star by hosting a party last week at his house with former NFL running back David Kopay and former NBA player Jason Collins, both of whom have publicly said they are gay. Other guests such as former NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbedajo also attended to support Sam.
The party was a way for Sam to meet people who paved the way for him to make his announcement and realize he has a community that supports him, said Bragman, who spoke with PRWeek about his strategy to help Sam come out.
PRWeek: What audiences were you focused on in making this announcement?
Howard Bragman: Historically, I've worked with a lot of celebrities and athletes who've come out of the closet. What I don't have is a blueprint for this, but what I do have is a process that I follow. With [Sam's] announcement, I wanted to tell it quickly, and on our timeframe because we had the real possibility of the story getting ahead of us — of somebody leaking it. I thought it needed to be told once in print and once in broadcast, and that was enough.
PRWeek: Why did you choose those media outlets to break the news?
Bragman: ESPN for a number of reasons. Number one, they are the biggest sports broadcast outlet in the US. Number two, they are part of Disney/ABC, so I not only get the benefit of ESPN, I get the spillover of ABC. Number three, I'm an ABC news consultant, so I have a relationship there, which has been really successful. Number four, Chris Connelly, the correspondent I reach out to, is a professional colleague, a personal friend, and I worked with him in September 2012 when Kevin McClatchy, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, came out, and that went really well. On the topic of LGBT stuff, ESPN has a really proud history, and they've done a really good job on this issue.
The New York Times had been covering gay and lesbian athletes coming out for many years, and John Branch, who did this story, is someone I've worked with on a number of things and I've been on panels with him. He's written about this topic and knows the topic well. It's a publication with national influence. On the McClatchy story, I had also gone to The New York Times.
I felt this was a really good one-two punch, and online and in the LGBT community, I gave Outsports.com, which is the most important gay sports website, a behind-the-scenes exclusive. Cyd Zeigler from Outsports is a very close personal friend and someone I turn to for advice, and I thought it was important for people to know how these decisions are made and why. I knew this would be a broad story, but I wanted to tell it through the eyes of the sports community and sports journalists.
PRWeek: What was the main point you tried to get across?
Bragman: What I wanted to happen was to let Michael Sam tell his story in his words on his terms and on his timetable.
PRWeek: What is the plan going forward?
Bragman: From here, my job is to block for Michael and allow him to focus on football. I've turned down every show that you can imagine around the world. As a PR guy, it makes me want to weep to say “no” to this caliber of people, but I also understand strategically we're doing the right thing, and I understand that this is a story that has legs. We have the combine next week, which is where the top NFL prospects get together and show their stuff to the scouts. After that you have pro day at the University of Missouri, where their top seniors get to strut their stuff for pro scouts, and then you have the draft. After the draft, instead of me and the agents calling the shots, we work with the team that drafts him to call the shots, and they will have PR people and owners. They will be his new potential employers. Michael, his agents, and I are really big on working as a team. Every decision we made we agreed upon as a team, so I think we're going to see the same thing when he's drafted.
It's not a one-shot story, so we have a lot of time to tell our story and tell it well. Had I felt there were things I was unhappy with in the first round, then I may have had him talk to more people, but I couldn't have been happier and nor could've Michael or his agents with the way it unfolded.
PRWeek: How do you think the announcement was received overall?
Bragman: I see nothing that I didn't expect. I would say it's 99% positive. One percent is some homophobic man and some homophobic tweets. I expected this and I expected people to ask, “What about the locker room?” which I the same thing people said to Harry Truman when he tried to integrate the service where blacks and whites could shower together. It's the oldest, most tasking, most offensive argument that exists, and I certainly had Michael prepared. We knew that question was coming up and Michael hit it out of the park when that question came.