Sports Publicity Touchdown for Today’s Top NFL Stars – IMG Agent Carlos Fleming Gives the Passing Play on Strategic PR for Professional Athletes

Sports Publicity Touchdown for Today’s Top NFL Stars – IMG Agent Carlos Fleming Gives the Passing Play on Strategic PR for Professional Athletes

By Natalie P. Mikolich

Following the biggest win of his young NFL career against the New England Patriots, Cam Newton has had no problem making media headlines on his own these days.  But, before he was an MVP candidate and NFL star, Cam Newton’s agent Carlos Fleming always understood the importance of sports publicity and the role it plays in making his clients successful on and off the field.

I recently had the tremendous opportunity to speak with VP of Talent Management for IMG, Carlos Fleming.  He shared more with us about how “pr is the pathway” to let fans, potential sponsors and company executives know that the next superstar is coming and how pr always needs to be “strategic” when working with professional athletes.

Representing some of the biggest NFL stars today including Cam Newton and now Colin Kaepernick, Carlos’ clients at IMG also include some of the best American professional tennis players in the world on the ATP and WTA Tours such as Venus Williams, James Blake, Marcos Baghdatis and more.

Here are a few more insights on the importance of strategic sports publicity when it comes to top professional athletes and how pr and social media are becoming “close cousins” today in our Q&A with Carlos Fleming:

1.What role does publicity exposure serve for the professional athletes you represent?
The first step when working with emerging professional athletes is to educate fans and prospective sponsors about this new rising star.  PR is the initial pathway to educate the marketplace, but a measured approach is important especially in an increasingly aggressive pr landscape. At the outset, the primary objective is to allow the athlete to focus as much as possible on his or her craft and avoid too much hype.  The goal at this stage is to start slow and try to maximize media impact.  With the right athletes, less almost always will be more, because media outlets will have a strong interest and the client will have an opportunity to be selective.

The second step after you identify appropriate opportunities for the athlete in the early phases of their career, is to focus on opportunities that highlight their personality, unique characteristics and other positive attributes.  Non-sports media opportunities oftentimes approach athletes from unique angles that you will not see in the traditional sports press.  PR at the beginning is about being strategic.

And step three, once the athlete has arrived, on the field performance is the most visible source of publicity.  I am not a big fan of doing media for the sake of doing media – every interview should have a purpose – promoting a weekly game, team press availability, promoting a sponsor, crisis management, speaking out on an important cause, etc. There will be so much coverage of the athlete that the “less is more” theme will become even more important.  Beware of over-saturation.  Keep in mind that even when doing media for a sponsor for example, there will be one or two questions about the promotional message and the remaining questions will be similar to what everyone else is asking.  When an athlete is in the media too much, you can be sure that not everyone is going to write the same positive story.  Even in the best of times, the tide will change and it can have damaging consequences to an athlete’s brand.  Let the on-the-field performance lead the media coverage and keep a “wish list” of the right bran-building media opportunities to target.

2.Can you tell us more about professional athletes taking a strategic approach with the media?
Athletes need to understand that the media outlets want fresh stories and access that no one else has received.  Reserving this type of access for the hard to get media outlets or the hard to get type of coverage (e.g. cover features) in the sports press is the right approach in my opinion.  Remember that the competition is not just other superstar athletes in various sports, but also musicians, actors and other celebrities who are looking for the hard to get coverage.  Athletes need to market their careers with this in mind.  Nothing above should imply that athletes should hide from the press. To the contrary, you have to be visible and accessible.  The point is just not to do so much that you begin to look like you are more hype than substance.

3.Can you share more with us about professional athletes and their sponsors when it comes to media interviews?
Keep the sponsors in mind always.  Make sure that you are challenging yourself to find creative ways to either integrate sponsors into media opportunities or offer the sponsors added media hits that are not required contractually.  For example, Victor Cruz was on Jimmy Fallon last year and had an opportunity to thank Time Warner Cable for a Pro Bowl promotion that they did for him which was very successful and likely helped him get selected to the Pro Bowl.  This was completely unexpected by the executives at Time Warner Cable and had a very positive impact on the overall relationship. 

Another example, when you see Serena Williams on the desk at most press conferences, you will often see her drinking from her Gatorade bottle.  It is not placed there by the tournament (Gatorade is oftentimes not even a tournament sponsor) but rather is a strategic move on her part to provide additional value for an important sponsor. This doesn’t mean that the athlete should be spitting out sponsor mentions in every interview, but there are times when sponsor mentions, cross-promotions or sponsor integrations can be seamlessly included.  The flip side of this, is that not seeing these types of opportunities can be seen as a major whiff in many sponsors eyes even if they have not booked the appearance. 

4.How does social media play into things today with the media and professional athletes?
Publicity and social media are becoming “close cousins.”   Social media is quickly becoming a primary source of information.  Stories are being broken on social media and most journalists and media outlets are actively involved in social media.  Sponsors are also looking for athletes that have a strong social media following.  To that end, having strong engagement in social media is paramount for a celebrity athlete, but it comes with the obvious risks.  Comments welcomed at the dinner table oftentimes are received differently when broadcasted to a million of your closest friends. 

There are more and more examples of athletes who have had contracts terminated for opinions they have expressed on their social media pages.  It is the ultimate pandora’s box where most conservative brands will bail before they will endure the fan and media backlash with an athlete.  Conversely, athletes with strong social media followings can capitalize on corporate interest in reaching their fan bases.

5.How do you deal with Crisis Management for your clients?
Athletes need to be willing to address issues head on and maintain a high level of honesty and transparency.   Just like our personal relationships, fans don’t like evasiveness and they don’t like being lied to.  And they don’t forget.  Athletes also need to take the time to understand from a 360 degree perspective the implications of anything that they say on that day, and how it will play out when people will refer back to it.  I was trained that “no comment” or “I don’t want to talk about it” Is almost always the wrong answer.  This is an area where I oftentimes get outside counsel to develop a thorough intelligent approach.