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Guide to Public Relations for Sports Organisations

Unknown Thursday, March 13, 2014 , , ,
This article is aimed largely at Maltese entities but the underlying concepts are, I think, universal.  Connect with Paul Grech on Facebook.

Often it is the last role to be handed out when a new committee is elected and the one where responsibilities are the vaguest.   Everyone knows what a treasurer should be doing and what a secretary has to do but the public relations officer?  Clearly, he’s the one who has to be sending out press releases to the local media but what else?

Indeed, such is the lack of clarity about the role that many are happy with a mention in the papers or in the sports news.  It is also a role that tends to be marginalised, with the most junior member of the committee often being lumped with it.

Yet, in an era where there are so many things jostling for people’s time and money, being able to communicate with the general public – and do so effectively – is a must.  To do this there must not only be a capable PRO but a strategy that provides the framework in which whoever is chosen can work.

Reality Check
Unless you’re one of the sports with a sizeable following – mainly football and waterpolo – the reality is that media outlets won’t be sending reporters to cover your events.  This might not be fair, it might not reflect what’s being done to deliver success on an international level, but that’s how it is.  Resources at newspapers, radio and television stations are limited which means that they’re always going to focus on what attracts the largest number of people.

This, however, does not mean that they don’t care about other sport or that they’re not willing to give them publicity; it means that you have to help them a bit more.  How?  Essentially by doing their job: make sure that they get the results in time, send in good write-ups and make sure that you make it as easy as possible for them to make room for you.

The Start: Clear Objectives
As with any other task, in order to be successful you must know what you want to achieve; where do you want to be.  Would you be happy to have a report appear in the newspaper a few days after it is held or do you want in-depth coverage of that same event both before and after?  Is having a photo in the paper important for you or do you want to get your sport on television as much as possible?

Those, and similar, questions have to be asked in order to get what you need from your public relations activity.  The temptation is to decide that you want everything but, in that case, the strategy would be of little use because clearly that isn’t achievable.  Targets have to be ambitious, true, but also achievable.

Once you know where you want to be you can set about determining a time-frame by which it has to be achieved and also what you need to do in order to get there.  For instance, if you want that any articles submitted to a newspaper also feature a photo if they are published, then you need to make sure that there’s a good photographer (and by good I mean good: someone who knows what he’s doing and not simply anyone who has a camera) at hand during the event and that they’re willing to let you use their photos.  And yes, this can mean having to pay them for it.  It is another reason why it is so important for you to know what you want to achieve because you can also determine how much money you need to get there.

Elements of a Good Write Up
As someone who has received more than a fair share of press-releases I can safely say that the number one reason for which they end up heavily edited or not used at all is that the quality of writing simply isn’t good enough.

The first rule is one that is rather universal: keep it simple.  Determine what it is that you want to report and then build your report along those items.  Remember the three elements that are taught to children learning to do compositions: introduction, body and conclusion.

Devote a couple of sentences for introducing the event, then write what actually happened and finally wrap it all up.  Always whilst making it as easy for people to read as possible.   Remember, this is not a novel that you’re writing and this is not the place to impress people with your writing skills.

A good knowledge of the basic rules of diction is just as vital.   This might seem rather obvious but you’d be surprised how often press releases are sent out with no punctuation marks or with everything dumped into one paragraph.  Even a quick spell check is sometimes beyond those writing the releases.  

That of checking the piece that you’ve written is particularly important when it is in a language other than English.  This might come as news to a surprisingly large number of associations but, if you’re sending a release to a Maltese language newspaper, then the article has to be written in Maltese.  Having edited the sports pages of one such paper for a number of years that of receiving a press release in English has to rank as one of the most frustrating experiences I came across.   

It could be that you feel uncomfortable writing in Maltese because you aren’t as proficient in it but that is why I said that the first thing you do has to be deciding what you want to achieve.  If one of your objectives is having reports in all papers then you have to find someone who can translate it for you.  Otherwise, the message you’re sending out to the Maltese language newspapers is that they’re not as important as the English language ones.

Always, the basic thing that you have to keep in mind is to try and help the person at the newspaper.  If you’re expecting him to do the corrections or translation for you, you’re asking for the piece to be heavily edited and risk having some important parts – such as names of sponsors – removed.

Talking of sponsors, personally I do not understand what benefit there is from including them in a report.  Does anyone truly believe that a statement like “this event was sponsored by XYZ Ltd” will get people buying more from that particular company?  

Even worse, there are situations when the event has a whole list of sponsors and the report tries to include every one of them; as if anyone will read them all.  For me, there are much better ways to brand your event and give the sponsor better exposure.  

That said, I understand that there are companies who still retain the mentality that if they are sponsoring an event they expect to see their name in the paper.  If that’s the case, then it is simply a case of trying to make the best out of a bad situation and don’t overdo it: describing what each sponsor does – it has happened – is one (very) bad example.

One final rule for a good write up is this: make sure it is sent as close to the event as possible; ideally on the same day as the event itself.  There’s no guarantee that it will be published the next day or even the day after but you’ll have done your bit and in most cases it will be published soon enough.  Again, a surprisingly large number of people doing the PR of sports associations don’t seem to grasp this concept and instead send reports days or weeks after the event itself took place.  If you’re not bothered to try and send it in as quickly as possible, why should the person editing the newspaper be bothered to use it?

Photography
Whilst most of the press releases that are sent in do get published by the newspapers – albeit some get edited – the same cannot be said of photos.  The fact of the matter is that people editing the newspapers have to deal with a limited number of pages and sometimes there simply isn’t the space to put in that photo.  Again, this might be frustrating and seem unfair but that’s the reality of it.

What you, as the PR officer, can do about it is ensure that you’ve done your part as well as possible.  That means sending in a good quality photograph which doesn’t simply mean that it is good to look at but that it is of a good size as well so that the quality of the image does not suffer when it is printed.

It is also a good to send in a combination of photos that are in a landscape and portrait orientation, thus giving more choices for the editors and thus increasing the chances of one being included.

Whatever photos are sent have to be clearly captioned with the names of those who are being portrayed.  Also, if the image has to be credited to the photographer, make sure that you include his details as well. 

As for the image itself, personally I prefer action shots as these are more dynamic and better to look at.  Many, however, opt to send in photos of presentations partly because they are easier to take and partly because they can include an image of a sponsor’s logo in the background.   Yet with good planning  and a good photographer (again, the objectives you want to achieve will dictate the resources that you need) you can get great action photos and include sponsors’ logos in the background as well.

It is good practice to keep a library of photos.  That way, if you’re sending a release advertising an upcoming event you will have a photo to attach with that as well.

Build Relationships
Often you’ll hear from some PR person when they need something: an article appearing in the newspaper, attendance at a press conference, getting an event covered on television.  Otherwise, you don’t hear from them.

Even worse is when you’re pestered to do something for them and, when this happens, you don’t hear anything.   Wouldn’t the decent thing be that of getting in touch with your contact to thank them for their help?

It is essential that a PR person knows as many of the writers, editors and sports casters as possible.  That way you know who they are and have a good enough relationship with them to ensure that when you need anything you’ll find them willing to help.

That relationship has to be built over time.  Talk to them not only when you need something but also on other occasions.  Let them know of good stories that might be of interest to them.  Tell them how the event went.   Invite them at least once a year so that you can socialise a bit with them.  The strategies that you can adopt are endless.

Keep Track
It is always good to keep a file where there are copies of any stories which have been published in the media.  For one thing, having such a file can be of great use if you approach someone to be your sponsor because you can give them an indication of what kind of coverage they would be buying into.

It is also a good tool for assessing what works and what doesn’t.  If you sent out something that doesn’t get published, compare it with something that was published and try to determine why it is that one was published and the other.  As a self-help tool, it can be great.

Ask Not What Others Can Do For You…
One aspect of the PR strategy that is often overlooked is what the organisation itself can do to deliver its message to those who might be interested.  In truth, we are getting ever closer to a situation where the traditional forms of media won’t matter as much (particularly if they are hidden behind a paywall).

Thanks to the internet, associations can get as much exposure as they ever did in the past without relying on anyone else.   Here are the prime examples:

Website
This is an absolute must.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy (then again, try to give it a modern look) and it doesn’t have to cost much.  Indeed, apart from the domain name, you can do everything for free and without needing any particular IT skills.

What is important is that you update it as often as possible.  This means uploading information before any particular event and then after the event; putting in any interesting photos as well as any other news that there might be.  There is nothing as off-putting as going to a website and finding that it hasn’t been updated in months.  The message that comes out is “we don’t really care…”

Similarly, make sure that any contact information that is made available is up to date and so that if someone tries to reach you, they will manage to do so.  Does the e-mail listed there still work?  And is it checked regularly so that any message received can be replied?

Social Media
Social media – sites like Facebook, Twitter and eve Youtube – provide great platforms for putting out your message.  There is the potential for any post to be seen by a large number of people but, perhaps more importantly, there is the possibility of establishing personal contact.  If someone has a query it can be answered in real time; if there is something that needs to be clarified then you can do so without any difficulty.

As with any other form of PR, however, they have to be done well.   There must be a plan of how often you update it, what kind of posts you put up, how to use photographs to get links and how to promote events.  The good thing about social media is that you often get a lot of analysis which allows you to determine what worked and what didn’t.

For instance, from personal experience items posted on Facebook in the evening have a bigger tendency of being read then those posted in the morning.  Such insight can be invaluable.

There is the additional factor that you must learn how the social media you are planning to use works.  Is it better to have a page or a group on Facebook?  What is a hangout on Google +?  What is an #FF on Twitter?  Each platform has its own individual characteristics and even though they try to mimic each other as much as possible, you have to understand how to get the best from your chosen social medium.  

Of course, you can opt to use a number of different social media but if you do so you should be aware that, unless there is a big team with different people taking care of different platforms, there is a huge risk of burnout where within a few weeks you will be so overwhelmed with the work involved that you won’t be able to update anything.

Most importantly, however, having a presence on social media should never – NEVER – come at the cost of your own website.  You might think that, given Facebook’s popularity, there is no need to maintain your own website if you have a page on there.  Yet, up till a few years back, the most commonly used network was Hi5.  There is no guarantee that within two / three years Facebook will be anywhere as popular as it is today.  So if you’re going to send people somewhere to learn about your sport, make sure that it is to your website.

Newsletter
If you want to communicate with your members then there is no better way than through a newsletter.  Traditionally this was printed and sent to people’s homes but now you can avoid all those expenses and send it via e-mail.  Indeed it would be best to collect as many e-mail addresses as possible because it gives you the opportunity to keep in touch with them.

As with any other aspect of the PRO’s work, this has to be planned for in detail well in advance.  Who is going to contribute articles, what are the deadlines, how many adverts can you get and so on?  All of these are questions that need to be asked in order to gauge what can be done and what cannot.

Be warned, however, that newsletters can be extremely time consuming.  Be it chasing contributors, looking for photos or sorting through any grammatical errors; there is a lot of work that needs to be done and has to be done quickly if you want to issue it when the material is still fresh.

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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer