What college football teaches us about PR

As you gather ‘round the TV, or tailgate, to watch college football teams square off, consider the many similarities it shares with public relations.


Every weekend this fall, college football enthusiasts will break out their Saturday best, gather on the couch or at a tailgate party, and watch their beloved teams kick-off.

Two of my passions—college football and corporate public relations—aren’t all that dissimilar. In fact, college football can teach us some fundamental PR lessons:

The coach/CEO sets the tone.

Woody Hayes, longtime coach of The Ohio State Buckeyes, was famously quoted as saying, “Paralyze resistance with persistence.” He set the tone for his team, the university, its alumni, and fans. They weren’t going to give up, no matter what adversity they faced.

Similarly, a CEO sets the tone for his or her company. Whether addressing investors, media, employees, or industry peers, a CEO has the opportunity to instill confidence and reaffirm the company’s strategy and outlook with every communication.

Preparation is key.

There’s a reason why coaches spend all that time watching game tape of their past performances and upcoming opponents. They need to know their own weaknesses and that of their opponents. They need to anticipate threats and plan for contingency situations.

The same level of preparation should be deployed when navigating a complex communications challenge, be it prepping for an investigative interview, communicating a difficult message to employees, or preparing a crisis strategy.

Hone the fundamentals.

Regardless of how many Heisman hopefuls you have on your team, you’re not going to win a national championship without strong fundamentals. In PR, you’re not going to go far without them either.

For me, one of the most important fundamental skills a PR professional can possess is being a strong writer. With a mastery of writing for corporate communications, you’ll be equipped to tackle any issue large or small.

Never underestimate an opponent (or a reporter).

Remember when Appalachian State shocked the University of Michigan in the opening weekend of the 2007 season? Some would argue that Michigan wasn’t prepared for its scrappy and hardworking Division I-AA opponent.

Just because you’re doing an interview with a small market paper or a niche trade publication doesn’t mean that the reporter is unprepared. He or she can still pepper your client with tough, incisive questions. There’s no such thing as a “slam dunk” media opportunity (or college football win), so prepare accordingly and know what to do if the media interview goes awry.

It’s all about the team.

Whether defense, offense, or special teams, college football is the ultimate team sport. A team will only be successful if all members are contributing consistently and doing so at the highest level of excellence.

The same holds true in PR. Be it mentoring junior staff, sharing best practices, examining where we can improve, or congratulating a team member on a job well done, we’re only as good as our team. The late, great Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, captured this sentiment perfectly in his famous “The Team, The Team, The Team!” speech in 1983.

What else can college football teach us about PR? Leave a comment and let me know.

Courtney Harper is a vice president at Reputation Partners.

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