HoopsHype’s new ‘Inside the Life’ series gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at various NBA-related careers. Previously, we looked at the life of assistant coaches around the league and the life of NBA scouts.
Now, we talked to a pair of public-relations staffers from different NBA teams to discuss the pros and cons of the job, their relationships with players, what a typical game-day is like and more. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were sharing sensitive information.
WORKING WITH THE PLAYERS AND MEDIA
PR Staffer 1: “It can be so monotonous for the players. ‘Hey, can you talk to this person? Hey, I need you to talk to that person.’ But that’s why I try to explain the good that each interview can do, the great opportunities that the interview can create. Like you wrote about recently, sometimes it’s setting up an interview to promote them for an end-of-season award or All-Star selection. If I explain what we’re doing, sometimes the player says, ‘Okay, what can I do to help?’ That’s when I’ll go over what I have planned. It’s all about trying to assist them. And that’s when the job is really fun; when it goes beyond just the team requisites and we’re working together in an effort to accomplish something great.
“However, I think the biggest misconception is that you’re spending a lot of time with the players, especially when you’re traveling with the team on the road. There are a lot of questions like, ‘Do you hang out with the guys a lot?’ That’s a no.”
PR Staffer 2: “There are times when players aren’t in a good mood. There are times when they don’t want to talk to the media. It seems like when that happens with younger guys, they don’t always understand why they need to talk to the press. However, over time, I think they realize that media members just have a job to do. When players understand and respect that, it’s easier. But everyone has bad days and you may catch someone at the wrong time. That can be very frustrating, when guys don’t make themselves accessible or push back when you ask them to talk. But that’s why you have to develop relationships with players and be able to explain what they can get out of it. If I explain the purpose of doing this interview, perhaps they will cooperate. At the end of the day, it’s mainly about mutual respect.”
PR Staffer 1: “Building relationships with players is fun. I’ve been doing this for a while, so I went from feeling like a peer to feeling like an older cousin or an uncle – but a cool uncle (laughs). It’s fun to have relationships with these athletes that people envy, but I focus on the professional aspect of it. I don’t want to use phrases like, ‘It’s a business,’ because I do think we’re blessed in this industry to work with really unique people who each have their own unique backstory. But it’s all about finding that balance between building a strong personal relationship and a very professional relationship. Oftentimes, having a strong personal relationship helps the professional relationship. When you genuinely like someone and they like you and you can say, ‘Hey, this is something we have to do; let’s do it,’ there’s a lot less arm pulling.”
One of the PR staffers realized that many players learn how to handle certain media situations from watching their favorite athletes and mimicking how they answered similar questions.
PR Staffer 1: “One thing I’ve noticed is that most players, especially nowadays, grew up watching games and interviews on national television or YouTube, so they sort of have a road map for how to answer questions when they enter the league. The answers are not provided by the PR people that often. Sometimes, they’ve seen how LeBron James answered a question or how Kevin Durant answered questions and they’ll do something similar. Guys like LeBron, who is a 16-year vet, and KD, who is a 12-year vet, really impact some younger players because they grew up watching how they carried themselves.”
In addition to helping their players, PR staffers also work closely with the media and build a rapport with the journalists covering their team.
PR Staffer 2: “My interactions with media members are usually great. You need to make sure that you’re only giving a credential to legitimate media members. We’ll read what kind of content you’re producing. Basically, we want to make sure you aren’t some random fanboy. There have been situations where a credentialed media member gets caught asking a player for an autograph or a selfie and they’ll be banned from any future games.
“I’ve seen coaches blow up on journalists who were poking the bear and asking multiple questions about the same topic. In one case, a coach and a journalist nearly had to be separated. That was pretty crazy. There are some media members who have big egos and you have to learn how to do deal with those kinds of people. But most people – whether it’s a local person or a national person – are professional and understand that you’re there to help them. Typically, I don’t have issues with media members.”
PR Staffer 1: “Anytime a journalist is interviewing our coach or one of our players, I always like to listen to what the players are saying so I know how they’re answering the questions. This mainly about trouble-shooting and seeing if there are any potential issues. It’s less about listening in to hear what the media is asking and more about what the players are saying. I think one of the most important things about this job, one of our biggest responsibilities, is being aware of what the players and the coach have said. Finding out something was said once it’s been published is way too late.”
DAMAGE CONTROL IS PART OF THE JOB
PR Staffer 2: “There’s a lot of damage control. There’s a lot the public will never know. A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes. I’ve heard of PR Directors getting calls at all hours of the night, hearing about a situation that involves a player on their team. I know that happens. We also have to deal with some uncomfortable situations. I’ve heard about a player hooking up with another player’s girlfriend and it starts causing tension in the locker room. Sometimes, a player will have a relative who’s really difficult and causing problems behind the scenes. You don’t see this as much now, but years ago, some players had an entourage. Sometimes, two guys from separate entourages didn’t get along, so you’re monitoring the family room. I’ve seen players get in fights. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens.
“Part of this job is being privy to information that must stay in-house. You’re going to hear a lot of things that may be deemed gossip, but you have to keep that information close to the vest. Every PR Director could write a book and each book would be really interesting (laughs). You’re the fly on the wall and you see some crazy things. But it’s your job to keep those things hush-hush. You don’t want to embarrass your player or your organization.”
PR Staffer 1: “This job boils down to protect and promote. Doing damage control falls into the protect part. But I’ll say this: Those sort of issues – where you’re going to powwow with the coach and the GM all in the same room – are few and far in between. There are certainly teams that have more drama, so I could see it happening more often for those teams. For us, it doesn’t happen too often where we’re trying to change the narrative. These days, it’s sort of a gift and a curse but the news cycle is certainly more of a 24-hour news cycle, so even bad news doesn’t linger for very long. The narrative generally changes on its own.
“I think ‘spin’ is sort of a dirty word [with negative connotations]. One thing you’ll hear some people say is, ‘Oh, he’s giving me the PR answer.’ They think the player has been prepped and all that. We certainly talk to the guys about what a good answer is and do media training, but we let them decide how to answer questions. All we’ll do is make them aware that the question is being asked. These guys are very, very smart. They don’t get enough credit for how well they handle so many different situations. If you just give them some time to think and make them aware [of a topic], that allows them to come up with a really good answer on their own when they’re asked the question. It’s kind of hilarious to me when people say, ‘Oh, he’s giving me the PR answer,’ but that’s actually just what the player thinks. They usually know how to answer questions without any kind of coaching.”
There can also be drama in the locker room over who’s getting the most press. Sometimes, players and agents will get jealous about which individuals are receiving the most media attention on the team.
PR Staffer 1: “Players certainly notice when certain guys receive all the media attention and they may get jealous. Most players are used to being on a team and they understand the pecking order, but it definitely happens. Guys will see one player getting a lot of attention and it may be after a game where they may have played better than that teammate.
“I have heard from agents who will say, ‘How come my guy didn’t get interviewed?’ or, ‘Why isn’t my guy getting more attention?’ It doesn’t happen that often. The better the player, the more contact you’ll have with their agent. It makes sense – agents are most hands-on with the clients who make them the most money. The agents who have very few clients are sometimes the ones who reach out the most. But part of doing team PR is knowing you’re going to have to collaborate with agents, and it’s definitely the players’ right. Their agent should look out for their best interests. In a perfect world, what’s in the player’s best interest is also what’s in the best interest of the team. If the agent helps create a star, that’s a star who plays in our uniform.”
THE PROS AND CONS OF THE JOB
PR Staffer 1: “Every day is different and I love that about this job. I also love the sport itself and with this job, we have courtside seats to every game. People pay a lot for those seats; I never take it for granted. Over the years, I’ve been able to work with many young men, helping them in ways that other people aren’t. There are a lot of people around [players] with distractions and ways to spend their money, whereas there aren’t too many people thinking about what’s best for them and how they’ll be perceived. I feel like there’s a little bit of influence you can have when you’re working with guys and showing them the importance of being a team ambassador, being great with fans, and how that can really impact everything.”
PR Staffer 2: “This is my dream job. I love being able to tell different stories, and I enjoy getting to know all the players. I also love stats, so I like producing game notes and things like that. I love working with the media members and building relationships with them – the national guys and the local guys. And I don’t take for granted the fact that I’ve had amazing seats at many playoff games, which is a huge perk.”
PR Staffer 1: “We all love the feeling of being part of a team. It’s obviously not the same as playing at any level, but you are an extension of the team unlike media members who are supposed to be completely neutral. It’s okay to root for your team. It’s a big reason why these jobs on the team side are so special. You’re a part of something bigger and you can be biased. It’s fun to win. Even after you’ve been around the league for a while and get older, that feeling doesn’t go away. It’s still a rush.”
PR Staffer 2: “I love working in the team environment. When the team is winning and going deep in the playoffs, it brings the community together and it’s so much fun to be part of that. There’s camaraderie that comes with being part of a team. If you’re a huge basketball fan, there’s nothing cooler than seeing what it’s like on the inside and having that perspective.”
PR Staffer 1: “The pay isn’t great early on in sports PR. But the job makes up for it in other ways. You can go work for Target and be a PR Associate or PR Coordinator and maybe make one-and-a-half times more than you’re making in sports, but does that job satisfy you? Is it something you’re passionate about? That’s where you take the trade-off. But teams know they don’t have to pay much early on, until you prove your worth and become more of a valued commodity.”
PR Staffer 2: “When I started, I was interning for free! The only pay was a stipend on game nights. It was really all about the opportunity it could create.”
PR Staffer 1: “It’s very time-consuming with the games and, if you get far enough, with the travel. When you’re talking an 82-game schedule that’s played over six months, you’re away from your friends and family a lot and that’s really tough. I think that gets tougher the older you get, especially once you get married and have kids. As you get older, you’re sacrificing more. When you’re young and single, it’s fantastic. There isn’t anyone waiting at home, so it’s easier to be fully devoted.”
PR Staffer 2: “The hours are really long, but you have to be committed if you want to work in this industry. I’ve always known that, so I never let the long hours bother me. People in every department are working long hours, whether you’re in the season-ticket office or marketing or community relations. When I look at this job, I see a lot of perks with very few cons.
“Financially, it can be tough in the beginning, I will say that. Sometimes, you hear about the hours and the pay. But if you look at a lot of the PR jobs around the league, people don’t really leave these jobs very often. There are only 30 teams and people really enjoy getting to work for a team. If there were a ton of cons, I think you’d see a lot more turnover. In my experience, these are people who love what they’re doing and feel that the pros outweigh the cons.”
WHAT A TYPICAL DAY IS LIKE
PR Staffer 1: “On the day of a home game, we usually have a shootaround at 10 a.m. so we’ll be in the office at least an hour before that. I’m usually at the facility around 8:30 a.m. With the way social media is now and the fact that you can set up alerts, I’m reading reporters’ stories as they are posted online. That’s something I’m continuously doing as stories get posted throughout the day. I always like to read stories [about my team] and see if there are any potential issues. I’ll pop in toward the end of shootaround. If I see anything glaring or I’m aware of any potential issues [that may come up], I’ll try to grab our head coach before it’s time for their media availability. Then, our players will speak. I’ll listen in on these interviews just so I know what has been said.
“After shootaround, I’ll grab some lunch and work on some of the projects we have going on. Over the next two hours, I’ll make my way over to the arena. Once I get there, I’ll start setting everything up. We have to get seating labels and credentials ready. We also have to make sure the media entrance is open three hours before the game so that people who arrive early can get in. Usually, the TV production people get there earliest. Then, our head coach is available to the media again 105 minutes before the game. Again, I’ll check to see if there is anything to warn the coach about before the interview. Then, again, I’ll listen in to what is said during the interview. The locker rooms are open 75 minutes before the game and the media members have 30 minutes to talk to the players. We’ll monitor those interviews as well.”
The PR staffer added that little things often pop up prior to tip-off and they vary from game to game. They check with the franchise’s social-media team and local broadcast crew to see if they need access to any players. They also make sure the opposition’s PR Director has everything they need and helps the PA announcer if there are any tricky names to pronounce.
If it’s a nationally-televised game, there are a number of things that may be different. The crew may want to interview a player or two on camera and meet with the coach off camera. The PR staff helps station a cameraman by the arena entrance, so they can get shots of players as they enter the building. The PR person says that while this was once more of an annoyance for players, many now enjoy it since they can showcase their fashion choices.
PR Staffer 1: “During the game, you’re monitoring what’s going on and making sure stats are being put in correctly. You’re also monitoring different tweets that are coming out from the various media members in the building.
“After the game, the players and the coach are available again. Again, if there’s a big issue or something crazy happened during the game that everyone is talking about, you make the coach and players aware before they talk. However, that’s not the norm. Throughout an 82-game season, that only happens maybe a handful of times. That may happen if there’s a big injury. Or I may say, ‘Hey, people don’t understand why you subbed out this player. I saw a couple writers tweet about that, so you may get that question.’ It’s generally not the case, but if I see something, I’ll try to give them a heads up. We’re supposed to bring the coach out to speak with the media 10 minutes after the game. They have to figure out what they’re going to say in the locker room and talk to the players, so you only have a couple minutes to say, ‘Hey, this may come up.’ But, again, that’s not the norm.
“After the coach speaks, our locker room is open and we make sure to have someone from our PR staff in the locker room until the final media member leaves. I’ve been around some star players who take a long time to make themselves available, so you may be in there a while. After we wrap things up in the locker room, we’re getting our postgame quotes and postgame notes ready. We provide those to the media as quickly as we can to help them do their job. We’ll check the media room to make sure everyone has what they need. Then, we’ll wrap up. I’m usually home right around midnight.”
ADVICE FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN THIS JOB
PR Staffer 1: “My advice would be to get experience wherever you can. It’s a competitive field to get into. I mean, there are only 122 major professional sports teams [in North America]. Be prepared to work hard, and take advantage of any opportunity you get. I would also say that you have to be able to write, and you have to be able to carry conversations with all sorts of people. There’s a difference between talking to a general manager, a coach, a player, an agent and so on. You have to be able to make a connection with all of those people and carry good conversations with all of them.
“Also, meet people and make connections; I really think that’s important. And just be pleasant to be around. I know it sounds funny, but these are demanding jobs where you’re working a ton of hours and there are going to be years where you aren’t winning a lot… Attitude is everything. It’s just like being a good teammate. Everyone prefers to have a good teammate, someone who makes the work environment better.
“I truly believe if you do great work, you network, you’re good with people and you bring positive energy, those big opportunities will eventually find you.”
PR Staffer 2: “You have to be self-disciplined and you have to manage your time well. But my biggest advice would be: Network, network, network. Reach out to PR people and send samples of your work. I would say you should start doing that at an early age. You have to be a great writer. I would also recommend reading a lot.
“If you can, do multiple internships because that’s where you develop the skills you need and make connections with a lot of people. I know many people in this industry who did multiple internships on their way up and they talk about how much it helped them. You have to be willing to work long hours. As I mentioned, you need to able to keep information tight. You can’t leak stuff out or tell people some of the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes.”