Jason Collins Makes a PR Slam Dunk

 Jason Collins Makes a PR Slam Dunk

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to NBA star Jason Collins.

In the world of PR, it’s not just what you say, but what media outlet you say it to. A perfect example? Basketball star Jason Collins coming out in a cover story in Sports Illustrated. By all accounts, this was a major announcement: Collins is the first male major league athlete to reveal he’s gay. By PR accounts, the way he made the announcement was even more interesting.

That there are gay athletes is a given. Women’s sports seem to be more tolerant; women’s basketball pro Brittany Griner came out recently, and the hullaballoo rating was low.  But in men’s basketball, baseball, football, and hockey, the policy is don’t ask, don’t tell. While opponents, and even teammates, may be openly homophobic, there is also the question of fan reaction. Will the people who spend billions on sporting event tickets and merchandise tolerate openly gay players, and the teams who draft them?

This past Monday, Collins revealed that he was gay directly to a media outlet that speaks to the sports fan: Sports Illustrated. The magazine is known for its sports reporting but is most famous for its annual Swimsuit Issue, the cover of which – a barely clad female beauty – tells much about its audience. If fan reaction was in question, Collins addressed it directly.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Jason Collins. It’s not just what he said and how he said it, but to whom he said it.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When making an unexpected announcement, consider making it via an unexpected source. How typical – and not terribly brave – it might have been for Collins to weep on Oprah’s shoulder, or Ellen’s, or Anderson Cooper’s as the latter two compared coming out stories. The hosts would have been all too sympathetic, and Collins would have lost face with sports fans. However revealing his truth via Sports Illustrated almost said, “This isn’t a big deal.” It is, of course, and it may go into PR history books as a slam dunk.

Anyone Mind About The Swimsuit Issue?


sports illustrated swimsuit issue 211x300 Anyone Mind About The Swimsuit Issue?

The PR Verdict: “B” for the Conservancy’s strategy and responsiveness.

Nature Conservancy the nation’s leading environmental advocacy group has just found itself in a PR storm.  Only in this case it was definitely in a teacup.

The organization which protects fragile and important wilderness areas partnered with Sports Illustrated magazine and luxury retailer Gilt in a fundraising campaign.  Using the iconic “swimsuit issue” of the magazine as its focus, the initiative was designed to widen Conservancy’s traditional support base.

Conservancy went into crisis PR mode when it became concerned that partnering with the best selling swimsuit issue could be seen as demeaning to women.  Too late to pull out of the deal, it went into damage control instead.   This included apologies to board members and staff, reforming procedures and downscaling planned promotions of the fundraiser.

Well done.  This was well handled from a procedural point of view and the issue never really caught fire.  Conservancy’s spokesman recently confirmed sheepishly to the trade press “we haven’t heard much from our donors.”

The PR Verdict: “B” for the Conservancy’s strategy and responsiveness but next time keep authorised public comment to a minimum.

Sports Illustrated’s PR told a philanthropy publication “this is the first time I am hearing about this” and therein lies a clue. A scan of the coverage shows the media heat came largely from Conservancy board members who by giving quotes to the media, needlessly magnified the issue. Interestingly no women’s advocacy, protest group or Conservancy supporter was ever quoted. Next time, delegate the issue entirely to the PR team and only authorize board members to speak if the issue escalates.  And besides, always take into account the news cycle.  With Rush Limbaugh hogging the headlines and promotional coverage of the swimsuit issue failing to provoke questions of the tie-up, there was a distinct possibility that the issue would pass completely unnoticed.

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