Fresh out of undergrad, and before I became a marketing researcher, I was a publicist. Fascinated by the “machinery” that helped direct the media conversation, frame brand perceptions and ultimately consumer behavior, PR actually led me to research, as I was captivated by the ability of statistics and consumer insights to add truth and empirical fact to that dialogue. In graduate school, my studies aided my further understanding of that interconnectivity.
Now, a couple of decades removed, our firm’s research work and my general observation of the sports marketing environment have led me back to the power of effective public relations. Specifically, events of late, coupled with some strategic projects for sports properties have brought to the surface the direct to target customer/fan access that today’s social media fueled 24-7 news cycle affords us.
Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, our President is the poster child for what I’ve observed to be a heightened distrust in the ability of the media to properly convey one’s agenda, message and motivations among brands and public figures. I’d posit that the same can be said for sports properties and athletes themselves. From the pure intentions of The Players Tribune, to the breadth of sports entities populating the twitterverse, there is clearly an effort afoot to disrupt the intermediaries when it comes to diffusing messages.
We might even look beyond the misogynistic underpinnings of Cam Newton’s recent dust-up with a female beat reporter in Charlotte as an extreme example of an athlete who failed to trust others to properly tell his story. This is certainly not meant to defend Newton’s actions nor is it meant to marginalize journalism. Rather it is a recognition that we as sports marketers have a greater desire and ability to control and directly deliver our brand message. And I’d maintain that present societal realities have set an expectation among our constituents that we do just that.
Recent research we have conducted for multiple teams have made it unequivocally clear that fans expect to hear from team leadership directly. Whether it’s literal Monday morning quarterbacking or a broader strategic understanding of a franchise’s future direction both on the playing field and behind the scenes, we are in an era of unprecedented and expected access. Both our in-game fan experience and media work have further suggested a desire for heightened fan connections in exchange for the investment of time and money that fans are spending on sports.
Add to that an Orwellian reality of incessant messaging that has transformed the sports news cycle. With it comes higher stakes for all properties and brands associated with them, to assure that speculation, misinterpretation and conjecture do not muddy the factual narrative. The ability for all of us to become “citizen journalists” obscures the line between objectivity and spin. But as a greater proportion of the American public believes that there is an inherent bias to reporting, and as round-the-clock “sports talk” often resembles divisive grandstanding, there is skepticism of its veracity. What better time and opportunity have there been for sports brands and properties to tell their own story, unadulterated by any misinterpretation or private agendas.
In a manifestation of this heightened opportunity to directly connect with fans, a local professional team recently invited me, not as a sports marketer but as a season ticket holder, to a unique on-field experience that recognized me for my investment and commitment to the team. On the positive side, this event and the direct dialogue that surrounded it, is a perfect example of the window now open and being utilized to forge deeper fan relationships, while eliminating the intermediary through direct access.
Our research for other franchises has shown that these type of immersive fan experiences can also become ripe opportunities for team officials to create an even greater personal connection and lead to a direct and ongoing conversation that allows the team or property to better steer the messages, while the fan feels both appreciated and listened to. It’s a perfect recipe to forge stronger fan loyalty.
The same can be said of the community relations function that many properties, may privately look upon as obligations rather than as critical touch points. Well executed, these forms of public outreach can be a springboard for fostering enduring fan relationships. Of course, well thought out research can test or evaluate the impact of these activities, thus affording even greater ability to effectively manage brand perceptions.