SPORTS PR IN THE AGE OF TRANSPARENCY

(Originally printed at http://www.sportsprsummit.com/sports-pr-in-the-age-of-transparency/)

As we all know, we are in a time of tremendous transition in the world of PR. Smart phones, social media and 24/7 news cycles have completely upended the PR world as we once knew it. So in an environment that I like to call “The Age of Transparency”, the role of the traditional publicist has evolved dramatically, and the importance of an authentic and strategic PR plan has never been greater.

When I first started in sports marketing, many athletes viewed PR as a necessary evil. Most didn’t have personal publicists, and most agencies didn’t provide them. PR was handled by the teams and leagues that athletes played for. The publicists worked for the team/league, and their primary purpose was to protect the interest of the people they worked for. Many publicists had very good intentions, but most athletes saw them as adversaries who worked for the boss. While some athletes understood that their public images mattered, many felt that their job was limited to on the field/court. Publicists were fighting a bit of an uphill battle to protect the team and present images of squeaky clean players who were amazing athletes on the court and exemplary citizens off the court.

Then came the fall of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. With stellar images and endless championships, Lance and Tiger sat atop the Mount Olympus of sports marketing. They were the golden boys of Madison Avenue, each banking seven (and eight) figure endorsement deals with blue chip brands. Each was a textbook of example of sports PR, presenting stories of heroes, philanthropists, family men and role models that kids aspired to emulate and brands begged to work with. Very effective PR helped tell the tale, and we all bought in.

When each fell from grace, so publicly, we witnessed a seminal moment in sports marketing history. In my view, together these events marked the moment when we officially entered The Age of Transparency. No longer would publicists be able to effectively weave public images that were inconsistent with the authentic people they were publicizing. The nexus of changes in media is remarkable: social media-which allows stories to spread virally and instantaneously, smart phones-which makes each of us a reporter on the scene and cable/internet news, which create an insatiable hunger for (often unsubstantiated) news flashes.

So what is a publicist to do? In this environment, publicists have no option but to tell authentic stories, to pitch genuine and transparent images that are not even slightly fabricated. If an athlete cares about their image, their marketability, they need to buy in fully to a commitment to authentic positioning that does not present an image that isn’t completely accurate. Yes, the public still wants heroes. Brands still embrace champions. But fans, and brands, also demand integrity. They demand authenticity. The publicist’s job is more difficult, and more critical, than ever. Before pitching stories, publicists must prepare their client through planning and training. And they must be on the same page with their clients. False positioning is too easily debunked, too fragile, too likely to be exposed.

And while authenticity and transparency now dictate the rules, and make fabricating false images a complete waste of time, they also present tremendous opportunity for athletes with talent, success, integrity and charisma. In the pre-digital world, publicists had to rely on a limited number of outlets to help reach the public. Now, publicists have countless network, cable and web outlets to pitch. And athletes who are committed to strategic and authentic connections with their fans through social media channels are building networks of their own. Brands not only look for athletes who fit their brands, they also look for access to sizable and engaged fan bases on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Publicists no longer have to hope that their pitches land. They can shape the conversation through athlete social media channels.

Perhaps the positive fallout of the Age of Transparency is that we now realize that fans don’t expect perfection in their favorite athletes. And Madison Avenue seems to be following suit. Michael Phelps still has endorsement deals. Snoop Dogg and Ray Lewis pitch brands. Instead of perfection, the public wants transparency and authenticity. Instead of perfection, publicists need to focus on positioning their clients as relatable, human and real. Lance Armstrong is very unlikely to ever recover from his fall from grace. But if Tiger starts winning, surely Madison Ave (and the public) will warm up to him again. Because now we know who he really is. And who doesn’t root for resurrection? Welcome to the Age of Transparency. Embrace it, because it isn’t going anywhere.

 

And while authenticity and transparency now dictate the rules, and make fabricating false images a complete waste of time, they also present tremendous opportunity for athletes with talent, success, integrity and charisma. In the pre-digital world, publicists had to rely on a limited number of outlets to help reach the public. Now, publicists have countless network, cable and web outlets to pitch. And athletes who are committed to strategic and authentic connections with their fans through social media channels are building networks of their own. Brands not only look for athletes who fit their brands, they also look for access to sizable and engaged fan bases on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Publicists no longer have to hope that their pitches land. They can shape the conversation through athlete social media channels.

Perhaps the positive fallout of the Age of Transparency is that we now realize that fans don’t expect perfection in their favorite athletes. And Madison Avenue seems to be following suit. Michael Phelps still has endorsement deals. Snoop Dogg and Ray Lewis pitch brands. Instead of perfection, the public wants transparency and authenticity. Instead of perfection, publicists need to focus on positioning their clients as relatable, human and real. Lance Armstrong is very unlikely to ever recover from his fall from grace. But if Tiger starts winning, surely Madison Ave (and the public) will warm up to him again. Because now we know who he really is. And who doesn’t root for resurrection? Welcome to the Age of Transparency. Embrace it, because it isn’t going anywhere.

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About Bill Sanders

SVP of Personal Brand Management at PMK*BNC. Helping icons from all walks of life to connect with their fans and monetize their brands.
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