An Off-Season in Public Relations?

revsWhat happens when the MLS season ends?  For the public relations and communications departments of the various franchises, the work continues.  Off-season work takes many forms, with roster changes, drafts, transfers and pre-season preparation all underway immediately.  Lizz Summers is the Director of Communications for the New England Revolution.  She has served in that capacity for more than six years after coming to the Revs from the media relations department at the University of Texas.  Ms. Summers was kind enough to provide us with her insight into what happens in MLS when the lights are off in the stadiums, but glowing brightly in the front office.  Thanks to Ms. Summers.

Footiebusiness: The Revs season ended last year on November 6. What is the first thing that you and your team have to do once the season ends to start preparing for 2014?

Lizz Summers: The off-season certainly moves faster than you think. There’s a lot that goes through your head as soon as the season ends, but the first thing we do is close out the current season as best we can right away when it’s fresh in our minds. This year, there were probably a handful of things we needed to sit on until MLS Cup was played, but anything we could do to wrap up 2013, we did. That meant updating all of our “sports information” type materials first – records, historical information, the entire roster’s bios – so it was all set and ready to go so everything could be updated (web sites, media guides, etc.).

At this stage of the league’s history – and coupled with the length of the competition calendar – there really is no off-season. Technical staffs are doing a lot of scouting – both international and collegiate – during November and December, so you’re working with them remotely for any news that needs to get out. Plus it’s a big time for ticketing and marketing promotions, so you’re helping push that messaging out.

I just checked my files and we put out 24 news releases between the time we lost to KC in the playoffs and January 1– on a broad range of topics including injury updates, MLS awards, roster moves, affiliation agreements and ticketing/marketing campaigns, as well as the 2014 season schedule which came out earlier than ever. It’s not uncommon for teams to be putting out releases within a day or two of major winter holidays when you’d expect it to be really quiet, because there is just so much going on, especially with roster movement.

And with all of that said, before you know it, your technical staff is prepping for the MLS Combine in early January, which leads to the SuperDraft and then – this year – we were one week away from players reporting when we closed the first day of the SuperDraft.

FB: 2013 was the first playoff season for the Revs since 2009.  How does your job change when the team makes the playoffs?  What additional items require attention during the postseason?  How does the condensed off season impact you?

LS: The playoffs make everything a lot more exciting. From the build up to your actual qualification to the last moment the whistle blows on your season, anything can happen and for the entire front office staff – not just communications – you have a lot of contingencies in place depending on when your season formally ends and how far you may go in the playoffs.

For us, there were a lot of questions about our club as the season came down to the end, and, if with our youth, we had what it took to make it through in a cluttered East. I spent a lot of time chatting and debating with media and pundits about our team and its chances, and really stressing that the last six weeks of the season were already a playoff run for us – even before we qualified on the last day of the season.

With that also comes a lot of talk about your players and their impact on your club – and then how that improved the team on a broader scale. Last fall, we spent a lot of time promoting Jose Goncalves and Diego Fagundez because they were so important to our on-field performance. Diego’s impact was easy to see – his goals, his assists, his age – but Jose’s impact was harder to quantify, and we spent considerable time trying to find or create metrics to clearly demonstrate how important he was to the team. Thankfully, the overall defensive record showed how influential Jose was to the Revs, and media and teams around the league agreed enough to vote him defender of the year. With Matt Reis and Kevin Alston’s awards, their stories were so compelling and heroic we believed that they had a great chance of winning their respective awards on their own merits after the story-telling done all season about the two of them by various outlets.

Game-wise, your job pretty much remains the same. The added playoff effect comes from more media attention – both locally and nationally. For us, that meant balancing interview requests and really trying to spread the attention across our team, and not let it center on a small handful of players. We had a young team so we relied on a lot of veterans and players who were comfortable speaking regularly as the requests came in.

We were a bit fortunate this year with our seeding in that we had a full week to prepare for our home game against Sporting. We use an agency to help with media and marketing projects, so they were a great help coordinating interviews and promotions ahead of the first leg of the semifinal series. Had we been the number four seed, our turn-around would’ve been two days ahead of a Wednesday game, so the seeding helped us a lot. And our ticket sales staff and marketing staff did a fantastic job selling the game and we had the second-highest attended playoff game in club history.

The four-day turn for the second leg was a bit tight, but the travel for that game ended up only being one day in advance, not two days like a normal trip to KC for us. The extra day at home gave us time to turn everything around and accommodate requests that came in, as well as confirm plans if we advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship round.

There are a lot of ifs and whens as you get to the playoffs since you’re planning for any possibility, but it’s planning you want to be doing. After missing the postseason for a few years, we were all happy to be busy that late in October and November.

FB: You first joined the Revs in 2006. How have communications/public relations changed during that period.  Are there more media requests or team outreach efforts?  How has social media changed your job?

LS: The profession has changed a lot, and so much of it is due to the explosion and expansion of digital news and social media. Today we still have a lot of attention placed on mainstream media – newspapers, TV outlets and radio – but so much of the soccer media is based online, that we’ve all had to adjust our opinions and attitudes about what is a “news outlet.” Many of the teams in the “big four” pro leagues shun bloggers, but soccer embraces them. We have to – and we have to work with them to ensure that they have accurate information.

In our market, a Revs fan isn’t going to find everyday coverage in the daily papers or on the evening sports report. But they are going to find it on a variety of online sites run by people who are dedicated to putting news and opinion out consistently. It’s important to us that those sites and those writers have the information they need to write or produce accurate, compelling content for our fans. They know our doors are open to them, and we’ll answer any question or inquiry they have the best we can. But with that access, and because of the dialogue we’ve opened with them, they also know that when they have facts incorrect, they’ll hear from us with the correct info.

When I started with the Revs, the only real social media channel was Facebook, and businesses – including professional sports teams – didn’t utilize it the way we all do today at all. A few years later Twitter came along, and so many more platforms continued to emerge. Today, there isn’t a PR staffer in MLS (or any sport) who isn’t routinely tweeting, posting or capturing a moment for social media, whether it’s directly for the team, or as part of the larger conversation to influence others.

Social media has also allowed us – and fans – a glimpse into the soccer media’s mind and about what they’re thinking and who they link or don’t like, so in a sense, it’s also made the media relations aspect of our job a bit more direct. You know right away if there is an opinion or attitude you need to try to influence, or on the flip side, maintain.

Social has also created some more transparency about the teams and what goes on and given fans a greater peek into the daily workings of the teams. You have players, coaches, executives and staffers all on social media interacting with fans and being ambassadors for your club. There is a lot more direct interaction and it allows fans to have a more engaged experience with the club. Social takes a lot of work and attention, but it’s such an important communication with your fans and potential fans so it’s vital to use it well and spark conversations.

FB: What is something about being the Director of Communications for a Major League Soccer team that most fans of the game don’t fully understand or appreciate?

LS: We feel the same frustration the fans do that teams aren’t covered more in mainstream media, be it local or national. It’s the number one topic of discussion any time MLS PR colleagues get together during the year: how do we increase media relevancy on a greater scale. One reason so many clubs support the emergence of digital media sources so much is because we know the depth and breadth of the coverage is so far superior to what mainstream media provides in many markets. Staffs are trying to help bridge that gap and there are more and more interested, invested mainstream media members turning on to soccer, so the change we all foresee is coming. But it’s slower than we all would like, and it frustrates us, too.

Another important fact that is that mainstream media is a business, and click-throughs and comments and likes and shares all do matter. So if your club does have coverage in a paper or on TV and it’s posted somewhere, make sure to engage with it. If the metrics show that the content is generating conversation and being seen by a wider audience, there is a greater argument to increase coverage.