It's About the Work

Each month, Sports Sesh examines the association of sports and PR in current events, while highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of them all. This month: March Madness.

The Good: Cinderella Stories Make for PR Gold

March Madness is officially upon us, bringing busted brackets, broken dreams, and the best competition of the season. It’s the time of year when fans spend countless hours meticulously planning their brackets and placing bets, only to be knocked out after the first few rounds. According to the Washington Post, there are between 16 and 20 upsets every year, and the chances of having a perfect bracket for the 2015 tournament are 1 in 1,610,543,269.

So what makes the tournament so intriguing for fans who watch their bets and their brackets go to shame every year? The underdogs.

Science shows that during March Madness, fans are relentlessly drawn to teams that have the odds stacked against them. While it’s certainly entertaining to witness an undefeated powerhouse like Kentucky continue their domination, there is an emotional pull that attracts fan and media support to the underdogs. Each year, the media thrives off these Cinderella stories, often elaborating on personal anecdotes from coaches and teammates to build an emotional connection between crazed fans and a team of unlikely champions that experienced a moment of sheer greatness. It’s these feel-good, memorable stories that journalists love to capture and fans love to consume, often catapulting the team and its entire institution into the limelight of positive press. Let’s be honest, would anybody know who Mercer was if they didn’t beat out Duke, a No. 3 seed, in the first round of last year’s tournament?

The Bad: Arrogance isn’t Bliss

The first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament left fans in awe as four top-seeded teams experienced heart-breaking losses to opponents that otherwise might have been overlooked. It was a day of epic upsets, so when No. 13 seed Eastern Washington faced off against No. 4 Georgetown, many thought the Eagles were about to shock the nation. Eastern Washington Head Coach Jim Hayford appeared to have the same mentality.

In the days prior to competitive match-up, Hayford agreed to an interview on CBS Sports Radio’s “Jim Rome Show,” where he confidently predicted that the Eagles would upset the Hoyas in the first round. After bragging about his team’s talent and undermining their competition, Hayford concluded the interview by saying, “We’re going to win and we’ll talk again, Jim.”

Hayford’s bold statements came as a surprise to most, especially given the Eagles’ almost nonexistent history in the NCAA tournament. For a Division I collegiate team with limited visibility, Hayford was given a platform to communicate not only the talent of the team, but the character of the team. With too much emphasis on the former, Hayford portrayed a disrespectful arrogance that not only reflected badly on the team, but the school as well, generating a negative perception and causing many to root against them.

The interview ultimately backfired as the Hoyas trampled the Eagles, leading by 20 points for a long period of the game and eventually winning 84-74. While Hayford’s arrogance riled up fans and drew more attention to the game, it ultimately made the blow-out loss much more embarrassing for the team.

The Ugly: Play by the Rules

Syracuse has a long-standing history of participation in the NCAA tournament, racking up 37 appearances, 5 trips to the Final Four and one national championship in 2003. However, that legacy is being put on hold, as the school recently announced a self-imposed postseason ban on their men’s basketball team, leaving them absent from this year’s NCAA tournament.

The ban comes as a result of Syracuse’s current case pending with the NCAA Committee in regards to a list of infractions connected with their basketball program. After a ten year investigation, the NCAA uncovered a pattern of severe, recurring violations. The report claims that Syracuse managed a lack of institutional control over its basketball team by allowing staff members to forge homework assignments for players, fostering relationships with boosters to provide players with monetary payment, and turning a blind-eye to athletes that violated the university’s drug policy.

The accusations have brought a swarm of negative press to the institution, bringing to question the credentials of head coach Jim Boeheim and his 966-win legacy. As a result of the accusations, Syracuse is expected to lose credit for 100 of those victories, while also forfeiting 12 scholarships, and adhering to a nine game suspension of Boeheim at the beginning of the 2015 season.

If Syracuse had implemented proactive strategies in response to the NCAA’s initial allegations nearly ten years ago, they could have avoided the PR nightmare they are currently enveloped in. Syracuse could have confronted the allegations head-on and taken action by enforcing strict rules to prevent any further foul play. Instead, they refused to admit any wrongdoing and continued to cryptically support a corrupt program, leading to a harsh punishment and mistrust of the organization.

“But, you don’t look Mexican, and what kind of last name is Zilverberg?”

I’ve actually heard these words. True, I’m only a quarter Mexican and I grew up in the Midwest, but my heritage has always been a big part of my life. I identify as Mexican and speak Spanish. Although I consume media in mostly English, I will sometimes pick up a Spanish-language newspaper or turn on Univision if a movie I want to see is playing.

Every time I encounter this attitude, I’m reminded that there is still a certain expectation of what it means to be Latino in the United States. While companies are waking up to the importance of the U.S. Hispanic audience, many are still held back by the belief that U.S. Latinos are one homogenous audience.

In reality, the Hispanic market is diverse.

We are bilingual and bicultural. We don’t all look the same or come from big families, we’re not all Catholic and we’re not only interested in budget offerings. Our countries of origin have different cultures, traditions and dialects. Reaching Hispanics in Miami is different than reaching Hispanics in Seattle. Reaching the acculturated market that consumes media primarily in English requires a different strategy than reaching the Spanish-language dominant market. Companies also need to contend with a growing trend of retro-acculturation, as generations (like mine) whose parents and grandparents are from the United States rediscover their roots.

Companies can effectively reach these diverse audiences by building authentic relationships and thinking beyond mere translation of an English campaign. Toyota (an Allison+Partners client) did this well with its “Somos Muchos Latinos” campaign that recognized its customers’ various countries of origins, while uniting people around their Latino pride and Toyota ownership. Tabasco contracted with key influencers, including Gabriela Natale, to be official correspondents on behalf of the brand, reaching consumers beyond the conference through social media.

Ultimately, companies that recognize the diversity of the Hispanic marketplace will be successful at harnessing the fast-growing $1.5 trillion spending power of U.S. Latinos.



A Long Journey Ends In A Great Night

Allison+Partners recently was named PRWeek’s 2015 “Mid-Size Agency of the Year.” It can be a surreal moment when your company’s name is called to win an award. There is a split second where it doesn’t fully compute that it was you, and then you realize you have to stand up and make your way to the stage. As I did, many memories flashed through my mind.

I remembered when Andy Hardie-Brown and I sat in a bar in San Francisco and decided to launch a new firm. We had aspirations and a vision that we could create a great company. A place where people would want to work for a long time and be proud of their achievements. We wanted to create the kind of place where great clients would want us to represent them and say, “This is the last PR firm we need to hire.” We talked Scott Pansky and Jonathan Heit into coming on board to join us in the middle of the bust. We were also able to attract some great people, a few courageous clients and, together, we began building the global company we are today.

As I was handed the ornate metal statue with our name engraved on it, I wished our entire company could have been there. From the account coordinator in San Diego who stayed until 8pm putting together a media list and a team in New York rising before dawn to accompany a client on a media tour, to the vice president in China who edited a blog post to ensure it was perfect, the award is well-deserved recognition for the commitment they display every day. It also represents the many incredible clients who gave us the opportunity to work on their behalf over the past 14 years.

It’s not an easy business we’re in. Clients can be demanding and sometimes you toil away without acknowledgement. However, I consider myself very fortunate to work with clients that do appreciate our hard work, and the more than 200 people worldwide that help keep them happy every day.

It was a long road to that stage, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the journey there.




John Normoyle (Digital Director) and Kevin Nabipour (SVP, Content) discuss top digital themes they’re seeing.

Kevin Nabipour: Hey, John. This is my first SXSWi and I’m really impressed. The quality of the panels I’ve attended has been pretty stellar. They’ve featured heads of Pinterest, Buzzfeed and College Humor, members of the U.S. Congress, extremely talented digital artists and storytellers, leading brands and some of the smartest people in the data industry. The diversity of backgrounds in these opinion leaders have kept me fascinated in how the “interactive” space is really the world’s public square, and not the possession of digital creatives at advertising shops, app developers and Silicon Valley start-ups. What about you?

John Normoyle: This is my second SXSWi, after a gap of three years.  And while SXSWi was starting to suffer fatigue syndrome and there was a sense that it was no longer the place for breakthrough conversations, this year has not been a disappointment.  The town is abuzz with live video-streams on Meerkat, with top influencers playing and learning the app along with everyone else.  I’ve seen our Secretary of Commerce swear in our first female Director of the USPTO, Jack Welch and Gary Vanynerchuk go toe-to-toe on stage about leadership and developing teams, and NBA star Jason Collins talk about his experience as the first openly-gay pro-athlete in the big four.

KN: Absolutely. There’s definitely a tenor to the conversations and bigness to the topics that seem like more is happening now and at a more brutal pace than ever before. Will Meerkat break through? Is Google Fiber going to work or will it fall down like Google+ and Google Glass? Later today I’m attending a panel entitled “When Robots Write the News, What Will Humans Do?” which I can’t wait to see. But it also gets me thinking: with all of this increased competition in the tech industry, the proliferation of global talent that’s available, and all the noise in general, is it harder today to come up with that transformative product or experience, or has the free-for-all actually led to a renaissance for creativity and ambition?

JN: I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a brand to be counted as truly transformative as the stakes are so much higher than ever before, and there is plenty of road kill on the streets of Austin from previous years. People are more skeptical, but the collaborative environment and entrepreneurial spirit of SXSWi still pulls through, and failure is accepted. There are lots of phoenix rising from the ashes on panels talking about their latest success and mulling the recovery of those that failed.

KN: What I’ve been seeing in some ways is a commentary on our continuum of human progress – the alphabet to the printing press, the Internet to Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality. (It is actually interesting to note that ours is one of the few generations in history bearing witness to two of these phases in a single lifetime.)

The proponents of What’s Next aren’t necessarily disrupting to destroy. In some ways they’re getting closer to the original intent, using technology to replicate more effectively our potential to connect as a single race. Many of these new advances are actually bringing back distinctly human subtleties – facial expressions, presence, responsiveness and closeness. The apps, the new storytelling techniques and how data can be captured and interpreted instantaneously are allowing us to see a world that’s recognizable and clear in its purpose. The pace is faster, the ambition more daunting, but the aim continues to have humanity at its core. And I think that’s the most interesting innovation of all.



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