Learn From the Pros and Build Your Company Like a Super Bowl-Winning Football Team

Football at Bospar

When I was a child, my dad sat me down at our dining room table with a yellow legal pad and a pen. He drew a line of Xs and a line of Os and said, “This is where the game is won. Watch the line, and you’ll see which team is going to dominate the scoreboard.”

We hear this over and over. In the hit movie The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock famously referenced linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s career-ending hit on opposing quarterback Joe Theismann, saying, “What you probably don’t know is that more often than not the second highest paid player [in the NFL] is, thanks to Lawrence Taylor, a left tackle…The left tackle’s job is to protect the quarterback from what he can’t see coming. To protect his blind side.”

Allow me a few minutes to compare a football team to a business and argue that your company’s PR team is essentially your left tackle. A quarterback, even Tom Brady, doesn’t score on his own: his running backs share the load and create diversions, his receivers run routes and catch passes, and his offensive line protects him, as does every other member of the team and organization. In a business, your CEO (your Tom Brady, in effect) might have the clout to get on the cover of Forbes, but it’s the PR team that works behind the scenes to put him or her there.

So, in the spirit of the football season, I’ve created for you a cheat sheet, a Fantasy Public Relations Draft Guide, if you will. Similar to how you might study your flex player’s stat sheet, here’s what you should look for when “drafting” your agency of record.

Grab your guacamole and a whiteboard and get ready to draft your winning team.

Content

“Content comes first,” as our Chief Content Officer Tricia Heinrich boldly (and rightly) affirmed. “If you don’t have a good story and the means to tell that story, you go nowhere.”

Some agencies have a designated content team that specializes in PR writing. The content team typically:

  • Works with clients to finalize press releases, blog posts and contributed articles
  • Creates “news of the day” pitches based on breaking news
  • Positions clients as “go-to” sources for expert commentary in their industries

The media needs stories, and your PR team better be ready to tell yours, and tell them well.

Results

If an offensive lineman or, more specifically, a left tackle protects the quarterback, how does your prospective agency “protect” or back up their claims? Do they have experience in your industry? Do they have a history of success? Ask to see how they measure success and how many media placements they have secured for clients in a similar industry. Look for specific examples of a variety of placements and methods of communication: bylined articles, surveys and earned coverage, to name a few.

Media contacts

Who does your agency call on for media coverage? Do they have a portfolio of reporter “friendlies” covering niche stories or top-tier journalists who come through with a big hit? If coverage in, for example, the Wall Street Journal is your Super Bowl, the first question you have to ask is, “How do I get there?” You don’t simply pick up the phone and say, “Hi there, senior WSJ reporter, please write about me.” You need the support and strategic foresight of a public relations team with solid and reliable media contacts. You need the big guy on the line to open the lane and shepherd your way there.

Social media

I spoke with our Vice President of Social Media Ruben Ramirez, who explained to me: “Think of social media as the audience that’s watching the game at home. They want to feel every bit as much a part of the action. Your social media coordinator should help you disseminate your messaging in a concise, yet effective, manner.”

There’s more to it than hashtags and memes (although those are important), and the right social media team knows that a successful social media campaign can help to bring the company’s message to a wider audience–an audience that, as Ramirez notes, “may not have seen the great feature piece in Fortune or the great infographic that was created internally or the wonderful byline placement that the team secured. The social team should be able to look at every piece of content generated and think creatively about how it can be used to attract eyes on social media while at the same time reinforcing the company’s message.”

And, finally…

Your account team

These are the guys who do the heavy lifting. Find out who’s doing the nitty-gritty and who will be your “boots on the ground.” The people calling journalists and advising on strategy are the guardians of your QB—or, rather, your company story and reputation.

Most NFL fans can name the quarterback on each team. The left tackle? Only the biggest fanatics know those nameless heroes. Similarly, your PR team is your insurance policy, the protector of your blind side. We anticipate what’s coming, we know your competitors, and we know the industry trends and threats. We see what you may not, we find the holes, and we open the lanes and provide you with opportunities. We guide you from startup to IPO and beyond. And that’s the only way to win the game.

Aaron Rodgers, CEO

Rodgers at Bospar

Last season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers hosted the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.

As I watched the game, I found myself thinking that Rodgers—future Hall-of-Famer, franchise quarterback, superstar and celebrity—makes for a rather fascinating PR case study.

Here’s what CEOs can learn from him.

Rodgers must stay calm in the face of 285-pound pass rushers; CEOs must calmly manage disguised blitzes from pushy reporters  

When faced with a 285-pound pass rusher with 4.5-40-yard-dash speed coming off the edge, Rodgers has just seconds to react. If he loses his cool, he’ll get sacked.

Likewise, interviews don’t always go the way they’re supposed to. CEOs have to be ready to deflect unanticipated, unwanted questions without fumbling for answers.

While you can think of your briefing document prepared by your PR agency as your offensive line, the best tactic is media training by a seasoned PR pro.

Football is a team sport—so is running a company

Now that Rodgers is out for the season after suffering a debilitating injury, the Packers must rely on the “next man up.”  

Similarly, as CEOs navigate the uncertainties of life and business, their ability to rely on their team becomes more and more important.

When all else fails, throw a Hail Mary

Sometimes, in football and in PR, things just aren’t going your way.

When this happens, Rodgers will likely do something like this.

Like Aaron Rodgers, a CEO must pull out all the stops to score the next PR touchdown. This might mean “inventing” news when there is none—by employing tactics such as third-party research, newsjacking and bylines—getting inventive with social strategies, and partnering with analysts, influencers and complementary organizations.

Similar to Rodgers’ style of play, successful CEOs are able to navigate and improvise on their feet when they are truly tested by a strong pass rush. Touchdown!

PR and Football: All About Fundamentals

Football at BosparI grew up on football. As a Texan at heart and Texas Tech alumna, I closely follow the exploits of Kliff Kingsbury and his players. I’m also a big fan of Tech’s former coach, Mike Leach, who is widely known for his ridiculous quotes and “pirate” philosophy – wherein his concept of teamwork is cajoling a group of misfits to band together for shared success, just as pirates did in days of old.

In addition to teamwork, these storied and successful coaches focus on fundamentals. As on the gridiron, a playbook of fundamentals can provide success in PR, too. So, as this year’s football season kicks into high gear, it might be useful for PR people – pirates or not – to review a few basic moves that will serve them well with clients.

First, add value. While it seems obvious, practitioners need to remember that PR programs should be designed and implemented in a way that supports marketing objectives that are driven by corporate objectives. The purpose of PR isn’t merely to generate coverage; it is about business results for our clients. Account teams should think about business results regularly and often and come to client interactions well-prepared with industry and trends knowledge and suggestions based on that knowledge. This is particularly true when meeting with heads of marketing and other executives who may not be your daily contacts. They will notice when their PR firm stays on top of competitive trends and information.

Second, PR professionals should think of themselves as a player/coach or perhaps a player/athletic director or general manager, broadly responsible for the success of a program but also making significant contributions to execution. PR pros should cultivate a player/coach mentality that combines tactical and operational support with ongoing strategic guidance and counsel.

Finally, another key to success is communication. Clients should always be fully informed about project status and plans, because they themselves are constantly being asked about status and plans by their own leadership. So, practitioners should do as much as possible to be prepared for and help them handle such questions. This is often as simple as being diligent about follow-up on requests for comment and information or confirming that your client has what they need, when they need it. Agencies should also offer polite, helpful reminders about projects in motion, as our contacts are frequently juggling multiple projects and programs. Being proactive shows that the agency has its head in the game.

Just like football players try to avoid penalties, agency PR pros should avoid the typical client “pet peeves.” These include:

  • Agency bait and switch. Quite often, senior agency personnel show up at the beginning of an account relationship and then disappear. Agencies should instead staff accounts properly, with a mix of senior and less-experienced team members, in order to avoid the bait-and-switch that many agencies are guilty of.
  • Exaggerated evidence of success. Don’t describe coverage in unrealistic and/or excessively profuse terms. Additionally, don’t characterize modest coverage or brief story mentions as “great coverage.” Clients know the difference.
  • Not accepting responsibility. Most importantly, PR agencies should admit to our mistakes. Everyone drops the ball occasionally, so take ownership without making excuses and gracefully move on and re-focus efforts on the rest of the “game.”
  • Making the client’s life harder. Finally, don’t make your client’s life harder by failing to manage internal agency personnel issues. Agency team turnover is a fact of life, but when it happens, make sure that a smooth transition plan is in place prior to informing the client. This keeps clients assured that service will continue to flow smoothly.

In our profession as in football, focusing on some basic, fundamental skills – the “blocking and tackling” of PR, if you will – can help ensure that clients are getting the results and support needed to help maximize success. That’s a playbook that both agencies and clients can believe in!