Why I Told You That Using Athletes As Publicity Spokespersons Has a Downside

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Arthur Solomon

Much was made by the New York media when New York Mets infielders Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez gave thumbs down signals to fans because they were bothered that the few fans that attended Mets games booed theirs and the team’s performance (which has been pretty awful).

The thumbs up, thumbs down war between some of the Met players and fans commenced on Sunday, August 29, when Lindor and Baez decided to give a thumbs down salute to the fans whenever a Met player did something good, which thus far has been a rare occurrence this season. Doing so would teach the fans a lesson not to boo them they decided, I presume. 

But it didn’t become a national story until Tuesday, August 31, when the New York Times and Wall Street Journal gave it major play and the thumbs up, thumbs down signals were discussed on the Mets telecast by announcers Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez as if they were dissecting the plus and minuses of the Afghanistan evacuation that concluded that day, or sticking to baseball if it  really mattered to the outcome of the pennant race, which the Mets have as much a chance of winning as I do of receiving the Pulitzer Prize for opinion writing.

After the short lived ruckus, the hand signaling duo gave the obligatory apology saying they didn’t mean to upset any fans. Which they obviously did. Actually it was a breath of fresh air for Lindor and Baez to say what they really thought in contrast to those controlled after the game pressers where athletes never express their true feelings.

I’m not the type of guy that says “I told you so,” when I’m correct about something. But for many years I’ve been telling you that using athletes as publicity spokespersons has a downside.

Why I Told You That Using Athletes As Publicity Spokespersons Has a DownsideIn the Mets situation, what Lindor and Baez concocted doesn’t matter. Because, knowing Met fan fanatics as I do, all it takes is a couple of good games by the duo and all will be forgotten. 

But in our business, and most likely only in our business, it takes on more importance when sports marketers spend millions of dollars on athletes’ endorsements hoping that it will result in favorable publicity or, considerably more important, increased sales.  For the great majority of brands, how athletes conduct themselves are important. No brand wants an athlete endorser arrested for off-the-field transgressions with the resulting negative media coverage reporting the athlete’s tie to a brand. Athlete’s commenting on off-the-field happenings regarding politics, racial and other social matters are something brands would rather their publicity hawkers don’t do. Because doing so can upset potential customers who disagree with the athlete’s comments.

But gone are the days when brands can control what their athletes’ representatives say. When athletes weren’t make the salaries that they now command, most would be wary of making comments that might upset executives of the brands they were hawking. Not so today. And that’s a problem for the marketers.

What I have been suggesting for many years to clients is not to automatically think of athletes as publicity spokespersons. For marketers that want to avoid being dragged into politics, racial and other social matters because of what their product endorsers say there’s an easy solution: Don’t use athletes. There are many other ways to achieve national publicity.

Most brands that use athletes as publicity or product representatives don’t consider a more localized targeted promotional approach, like supporting a community mission, an arts organization or an educational project. But doing so, if crafted correctly and supervised by savvy PR practitioners, can achieve as much and in many cases more major media coverage as costly sports promotions at a fraction of the budget. That’s because, except for marketing, advertising and trade journalists, the size of a budget doesn’t matter to reporters, editors and producers. It’s the news or feature elements that are the deciding factors that achieve coverage. 

I’ve gained major national publicity for clients many times by using none sports publicity spokespersons. I’ve used a psychologist to talk about at-risk personalities for a national addiction organization.  A former mayor of a large U.S. city as a spokesperson for an educational promotion, because he was a teacher before entering into politics, a fire marshal to talk about fire safety for a program on that subject,  They all gained major national publicity for clients because of their expertise regarding the subject. (And when athletes fit the client, I used numerous athletes, but always made certain that that athlete-client connection wasn’t forced as happens too often.)

So, when creating a program for publicity purposes, use a spokesperson that fits the account. For a financial client, use an investment advisor, for a building supply client, use a contractor, etc. Doing so provides expertise to the discussion.

Offering an expert to the media is much more likely to get meaningful publicity with message points for a client than serving up an athlete who can only say, “I’m a spokesperson for XYX Company.”

As for the controversy ignited by the thumbs down gesture to the Met fans, it’s a warning of what I’ve always told clients. Be careful. Unlike the days past, today there’s no way that you can control what high salaried athletes do or say.  

I can understand why the sports media jumped on the story and made it more than a one day yarn. It certainly gave them something new to write and talk about other than their repetitive discussions necessitated by the 162 game seasons.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and nonsports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net