In the world of professional sports, reputation matters. How an individual athlete or sports team is viewed by the public can impact ticket sales and other forms of revenue. The proliferation of social media has placed even greater emphasis on public perception since fans now have an always-on outlet to praise or criticize sports organizations via online public forums.
The job of maintaining a positive image for athletes and franchises falls on Public Relations (PR) specialists. These media-savvy professionals coordinate the outflow of positive information through traditional press releases and social media platforms. PR specialists are also manage crises by drafting and disseminating unified public statements that represent the best interests of a sports organization.
There were around 260,000 people employed in the PR field in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual pay for PR specialists was $59,300 in 2017.
Role of PR in Sports Management
Professional sports PR specialists perform many of same the tasks as PR professionals in other industries. One key difference, though, is the fast pace at which fans follow statistics and other sports-related data. The task of compiling and publishing those stats falls on the PR department. The information is either published through outside media outlets or on the team’s website.
Magazines, newspapers and other independent sources remain the primary source of news for sports fans. Understanding how to navigate the world of sports journalism is key for keeping a sports team in the public spotlight.
A 2017 Forbes article highlighted four unique stories that emphasize the role of public relations in professional sports. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham earned top rankings in 2016, but those successes were overshadowed by fines the NFL levied on him. The author recommended publicizing charitable giving as one way to redeem Beckham’s public image.
“Philanthropic work isn’t just fulfilling, it can help a player make connections that might not otherwise be possible,” the author said.
Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry’s positive public image helped earn him key sponsorships, the article said. Following his team’s 2015 NBA championship win, Curry garnered great PR exposure by “doing lots of photo shoots and interviews, playing golf with President Obama, participating in a marketing tour for Under Armor and enjoying time with his family after his second child was born.” Several sponsorships followed, including endorsements by Under Armour, JPMorgan Chase and Fanatics.
A Firsthand Account of PR in Sports Management
Jeff Altstadter, PR director for United States Golf Association, described his job for the podcast Work in Sports. Since you can’t predict when a crisis will happen, the host Brian Clapp asked, how do you plan for the possibility of the unknown?
“You need to recognize that there are [a] crazy number of issues, and there’s no way to plan for everything,” Altstadter said. “From my perspective, we’ve had issues. We got together and created a playbook for crisis communications and disaster. It had a communications tree and triage issues and allotted spokespeople. But, with all of that said, you can’t cover everything. You have to get the message right. You have to be clear and try to handle things quickly in the right way.”
The advent of social media, he added, presents new challenges for PR professionals. Since you never know when you’re being recorded, he said, it has become more important than ever to be transparent and honest. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know the answer. Altstadter said his department actively monitors social media apps to know what is being said about USGA events, especially during major events. Incidents describing live tournaments, whether good or bad, can reach thousands of fans before the media ever gets wind of them, he said.
The Evolving Role of PR Specialists
Technology continues to drive change within the PR field. A 2017 article in Forbes noted that professionals entering the PR field, whether in sports or another industry, must have skills in content creation, events, executive coaching, corporate communications, social media, reputation management and more.
Job descriptions for PR positions now seek experience in the areas of “strategic communications, research, writing and creativity” as well as areas not traditionally associated with PR, such as “campaign development, social integration, keynote presentations and other tasks,” the article said.
Almost half of PR professionals and 60 percent of marketing directors believe that PR and marketing will become closely assigned within the next five years, according to a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism report cited in the Forbes article.
Whether seeking a career in facilities management, sports media or any sports leadership position, a deep understanding of the role that PR plays in professional sports is key to a successful career in sports administration. St. Thomas University’s online Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Sports Administration teaches a course on sports media and public relations. The seven-week class is taught by STU faculty and covers the history of public relations, current trends within media relations and the duties of the sports information director, among other PR-related topics.
Sports-related news and statistics are reaching fans faster than ever. The online MBA in sports administration from STU is designed to prepare the next generation of PR professionals to help sports teams maintain a positive public reputation, both in and out of the stadium.
Learn more about the STU online MBA with a concentration in Sports Administration.