PR Lessons Learned From Four Tentpole Sporting Events, Past and Present

As we approach the PR barrage of promotions for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, below are a few lessons from past and present major sporting events that apply to PR accounts in general.

The 2021 World Series

The Situation: The Atlanta Braves overcame what many observers thought were insurmountable odds to defeat the Houston Astros in the series. The teams played below .500 baseball until the 111th game of the season. And they accomplished the feat despite losing their best player, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., for the season, when he was injured on July 10. In addition, another outfielder, Marcel Ozuna, who led the National League in home runs and runs batted in, in 2020 hadn’t played since May 25, due to allegations of domestic violence.

Unlike those PR people who avoid making mid-course corrections to an approved plan and ride it to the end, Braves management thought outside the box. Instead of writing off 2021 and preparing for 2022, the team’s general manager remade the Brave’s outfield in mid-season—and the new players helped the Braves win the World Series.

The Lesson: Always think of an approved program as an outline that might have to be corrected if it is not producing the desired results. And never be fearful of telling a client that changes have to be made. Though doing so challenges the idea that once a client has approved a program it is written in stone, in my capacity as a senior vice president/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, I often suggested mid-stream changes to approved programs that were not working. And doing so was always appreciated by the client and the account team’s supervisors.

The 2023 Super Bowl

The Situation: Coverage of clients’ sports marketing campaigns in consumer publications has been almost nil for years. (It’s mostly relegated to ad trade books). But this was especially evident in the lead-up to this year’s game, which saw news stories about gambling from home dominate coverage until shortly before the game itself and after it.

The Lesson: The closer you get to a mega sporting event, history shows, the more likely the negative media converge will be as journalists look for cutting-edge stories. PR staffers on sports-related accounts must always be prepared, as if they were handling a client in crisis.

The Run-up to the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics

The Situation: Almost from the day it was announced that Paris would host the 2024 Summer Olympics it has received negative media coverage because of the IOC’s support of Belarus and Russian athletes to participate in the games and the charges of corruption in the awarding of contracts.

The Lesson: Make certain that your sports marketing account team includes a person who has the background necessary to respond to negative media coverage and not wither under incoming flak, because negative coverage of the games will increase as July 26, 2024, draws closer. Assigning sports junkies to “normal” sports marketing accounts is not a good idea. Assigning them to Olympic-associated accounts is a major error. Staff the account teams with people who realize that sports is as much a business as any other account that the agency handles.

The Implosion of the 2023 New York Mets

The Situation: Despite its record-breaking payroll the Mets never contended for a playoff berth and dismantled the team in mid-season.

The Lesson: Big budget accounts do not guarantee the success of a program. It’s the ideas in the program that appeal to the media that guarantees success.

In my opinion, the most important PR lessons from these events are the following: When things don’t go as planned, don’t ride a dead horse. Do mid-course corrections. And it’s the ideas in a program that makes a program a success or failure, not the size of the budget.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected]