Or, How to work with a really strict Public Relations office
Do you have what it takes to support a team at the highest level? At SXSW, two experts gave us an inside look into the unsung battles that take place during the NBA championships.
No matter who wins, online content must be approved before going live. This reality check comes from two professionals who survived the gauntlet of an NBA Championship battle against each other not just once, but twice: Michael Farmer, Director of Internet Services for The HEAT Group, and James Chandler, former Director of Digital Strategy and now the VP of Digital for The Innovative Media Group.
The double header battle between the Spurs and the Heat in 2013 and 2014 was the stuff of legends.*
But for the talk, moderated by Al Aguilar of Creative Civilization, the agency behind the campaign and hashtag #GoSpursGo, Chandler and Farmer mostly kept to the realities of working in digital media.
First lesson: It’s hard
“No sleep” felt like the number one takeaway from both experts.
“If any one of you ever have the misfortune to work in network sports, it’s a grind – you’re never off,” says Farmer.
In fact, Chandler, who has since left to work at a private agency, says he watches the Spurs more now than he did while working for them.
It also moves quickly. “We might have five minutes’ notice before information is released and we’re trying to throw together a graphic,” relates Chandler.
Realities of fan engagement
Like all sports fans, NBA fans constantly create their own fan content and are always looking to engage with their favorite players and teams.
“The term ‘engagement’ is growing ever more important in our lives. You don’t want to be in a place where you’re denying fans the access they want,” says Farmer. “With fan created content it’s a delicate role of handling the brand, handling fan perception of brand. It can turn negative very quickly.”
That diplomatic statement coming from the guy who handled the Heat’s online presence during the height of King James’ reign, from his free agent signing to his notorious exit, post-Championship loss, and return to Cleveland (and all the LeBroning in between).
But, back to the nuts and bolts of today’s digital media in sports…
How to work with PR … and the NBA
It was tough to tell who was more strict about controlling content – each team’s PR office, or the NBA itself. The NBA issues yearly tight guidelines for social media platforms that tend to favor monetizing their own delivery of content. For example, Periscope accounts are currently not allowed for the teams, dashing your hopes of official streaming from games for free.
“You think you’ll go in and change the world with what you can do, or you think it’ll be like the Atlanta Hawks and tweet out whatever you’re thinking, but it’s not,” says Chandler. Both he and Farmer emphasized the PR approval process and the importance of gaining trust.
“We don’t make a move without talking to PR. We’re held to a different standard than ESPN,” says Chandler. “The winning teams don’t want any distractions. You’ll tend to find that the teams that aren’t doing as well have a lot more leeway.”
Farmer agrees. “You quickly learn that the basketball side controls a lot of what happens.” Though PR is more and more a part of many marketing departments or campaigns rather than a strictly separate unit, the divide remains in the professional sports world.
“For whatever reason it’s worked for our teams and led to championships,” says Farmer. “And since it works, you have people less likely to move away from that path.”
Chandler agreed from the Spurs’ experience. “We’ve been winning for 15 years and you can’t fight that.”
No stereotypical jocks here: Emotional intelligence is essential.
“Technical skills are one thing but the emotional intelligence is what will get you there,” Chandler said. Recognizing the trials of many who work in a tech field, he added, “You gotta be able to go to your sales department and say, ‘this is what we do.’ If you can’t educate, it becomes really difficult.”
This isn’t the first time communicating value of story and messaging behind the scenes of sports has ben highlighted. ESPN has previously recognized the value of emotionally resonant storytelling in promoting its content.
Farmer also highlighted the importance of early staff development. “I try to have interns interact with their managers as much as possible,” he said about his commitment to training with an eye towards smart succession planning. “I can’t compete with poaching, so I need to bring in replacements who have the knowledge already.” Sounds like interning is the way to get in the field.
Predicting what’s coming
“I’m trying to learn a lot about virtual reality,” says Farmer. “Being able to present a game where people can be more immersed in the sounds and visuals is huge.” He pointed to the NFL’s access to instant replays and the customization to select different angles almost as soon as the play happens. The NBA isn’t there yet, but the Golden State Warriors livestreamed their opening game last October.
Both strategists agree that live games in 360 degrees will be a game changer, if they aren’t already. “You’re starting to see people actually want to stay at home because the home experience is so much better,” says Chandler. He predicts that apps won’t go away, but he expects VR, wearables and beacon technology to disrupt access.
And as for predicting the players in this season’s playoffs?
For the West, “of course I’m going with the Spurs,” said Chandler, to the delight of the San Antonio-hosted venue. For the East, Farmer expects to see the Cavaliers, or the Heat “if they pull out a miracle over the next few months. And you can’t rule out the Thunder in the West.”
Oh, or this one record-breaking team called the Golden State Warriors.
*Disclaimer: This post was written by a rapid Spurs fan who tried really hard – OK, reasonably hard – to be completely unbiased.