Why Effective PR is Even More Important for Olympians in Non-Olympic Years with Octagon’s Drew Johnson

Why Effective PR is Even More Important for Olympians in Non-Olympic Years with Octagon’s Drew Johnson

By: Natalie Mikolich

Sochi 2014 is over, so now what for U.S. Olympians and their PR reps?  With the spotlight of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games faded away, most of us are not even thinking about what is in store yet for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the Olympians who will be competing in them – especially with the worldwide excitement surrounding World Cup this Summer. 

For those who work in Olympic Sports though, they have not slowed down their communication and marketing efforts with Rio 2016 looming around the corner for them.  And, with ESPN the Magazine just releasing the most anticipated sports magazine of the year – their annual Body Issue – and the ESPY Awards set to air next week, we are getting another look this year at some of the incredible Summer and Winter Olympians like Michael Phelps, Mikaela Shiffrin and Jamie Anderson in the media limelight again.

Sharing more with us about why non-Olympic years are even more critical for effective public relations initiatives to highlight Olympians and differentiate them from their fellow competitors and potential sponsors, is Director of Strategic Communications for Octagon Olympic & Action Sports, Drew Johnson.  In addition to this, Drew also details more insights on what it is like working with some of the most decorated Olympians of our time such as Michael Phelps.

For this and much more with Drew, here is our full Q&A:

1. First, can you tell us more about your division at Octagon and what your team focuses on for your clients?
Octagon’s Olympics & Action Sports division is a global leader in the marketing and management of individual sport athletes. Our history dates back to the memorable 1984 Summer Olympics, the significance being the LA Games were the first Olympics that athletes were allowed to commercialize their individual rights (ie. name, likeness, image).  

From the beginning, our efforts were deeply rooted in representing the athlete’s rights in the commercial marketplace and served as the foundation to the development of athlete-driven marketing programs and platforms that has served our clients well over the years. We have a specialized staff with specific areas of expertise - PR, Marketing, Production & Content Development, Legal, and Client Management - and combined experience of more than 80 years working directly within Olympics and action sports.  As an agency, we have represented a gold medalist in every Games since 1984, many of whom have been the most decorated and marketable athletes of their respective Games.

2. Who are some of your clients that you represent in your division at Octagon Olympic & Action Sports?
We have a strong and diverse roster of clients including Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Mikaela Shiffrin, Natalie Coughlin, Kelly Clark, Jamie Anderson, Seth Wescott, Hannah Teter, Alana Blanchard, Andy Macdonald, Mitchie Brusco, Nathan Adrian, Jack Robinson and Sebastian “Seabass” Zietz among others.   

The biggest marketing star to emerge from the Sochi Olympic Games was Mikaela Shiffrin as noted by Forbes, Bloomberg, USA Today and Sporting News, among others. The youngest skier to win a Gold Medal in slalom and the first American female to win the event since 1972, Shiffrin was featured on two Sports Illustrated covers in the span of five weeks (believed to be the first for an alpine skier), and profiled by leading media outlets including 60 Minutes (Sports), TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Yahoo, ESPN, CNN and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  She followed up her success in Sochi by completing her World Cup season with her second consecutive Crystal Globe in women’s slalom.  

3. On an on-going yearly basis, can you also tell us why PR is important for the athletes you represent even in non-Olympic years?
Fundamentally, there is no difference in terms of the value or level of importance for PR in Olympic and non-Olympic years. I mean that in the sense that PR is not a transactional relationship; rather, it is an on-going initiative that evolves with the athlete’s career.

Naturally, the spotlight is greatest in an Olympic year because you have a significant increase in mainstream media interest, which creates more PR opportunities. But much like the athletes on the playing field, the media landscape is equally competitive so while there are more media outlets and social media platforms to target, we are witnessing broader coverage of a limited number of stories. One would think given the larger media audience we would see a greater number of stories being covered, but when you step back and take a closer look you’ll find that a lot of these outlets are covering the very same four or five major storylines, which leaves us with very select, top-heavy coverage.   

Record-breaking athletic performance will always be the most significant driver of media attention, but it’s the establishment of unique storylines that will help create touch points with fans and sponsors. Therefore, the non-Olympic years are as critical (if not more) as an Olympic year because it is the window of time during which effective PR initiatives can help highlight and differentiate athletes among their peers, and doing so at a time when media and sponsors are considering their Olympic initiatives in the year ahead of the Games.

NOTE: Octagon Olympic & Action Sport athletes nominated for this year’s ESPYS Awards include Mikaela Shiffrin (Best Female Athlete, Best U.S. Female Olympian), Jamie Anderson (Best U.S. Female Olympian, Best Female Action Sports Athlete) and Kelly Clark (Best Female Action Sports Athlete). Octagon athletes featured in ESPN the Magazine 2014 Body Issue include Winter Olympian Jamie Anderson and Summer Olympian Michael Phelps (http://espn.go.com/espn/bodyissue)

4. When it comes to crisis management, can you tell us what your approach is and how you address things for your clients?
Each crisis situation is unique to its own set of circumstances so it is critical to have a full understanding of the potential issues from all the angles – legal, sponsors, media, NGB (National Governing Body), and fans. In situations where there is legal concern , it extremely important that your crisis team has a full understanding of any/all potential legal implications while at the same time being mindful of the various media implications.

Through it all, a general rule of thumb that will serve you well through any crisis is to be as upfront as you can be, and to be honest. As humans, we are all bound to make mistakes in life, but if we stand up and take responsibility for our actions, we can learn and grow from our mistakes, and forgiveness can usually be earned.
5. Last, can you tell us your thoughts in general about working in the exciting sports industry and any advice for those looking to break in?
I have been fortunate to work in the sports industry for more than 15 years and can honestly say that I look forward to going to work each and every day. While I have had the pleasure of sitting alongside some very incredible journeys with clients, my motivation is rooted in the business of sports and my passion is focused on being the best PR professional that I can be.

My advice to those looking to break in is to work hard extremely hard in developing and sharpening your business skillsets. Too often prospective employees emphasize their interests in sports (which we already know since you are pursuing the position) and fail to demonstrate their business acumen. Find your passion, work your tail off, create an opportunity, and with a little bit of luck you’ll put yourself in position to be successful.