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Storytelling 101: Sports and Politics And The Ties That Bind

By Joe Favorito,

Aug 3, 2015

Several years ago I was sitting in the stands at the US Open during a rain delay with Doug Band, who was then President Bill Clinton’s Deputy Assistant. Doug was at the Open with POTUS that day, and as we waited for the courts to dry, we got to talking about the similarities between what we look for in the business of sports and what the political cycle entails. I mentioned the rain delay would drive play that night on CBS into prime time, which was huge for us, and he laughed and talked about how so much revolved around getting those eyeballs and doing what was essential for success in his business; winning hearts and minds through storytelling. Over the years, so many successful campaigns have been won using sports metaphors, but more and more successful campaigns have used sports to reach a younger and more engaged demo. The athletic candidate, with an ability to engage the passion of the sports fan, probably has a good chance of connecting more with those people when they vote, and in tough times, may even get a bit more of a pass as they share a common bond, either as a fan or, in the case of President Obama, as an engaged baller on some occasions.

With that in mind we had the ability to check in with an old colleague Kevin Sullivan, who has worked both sides of the sports and political aisle, having been involved with teams like the Dallas Mavericks and in leading the charge for NBC Sports and NBC Universal before crossing over into politics and education under the Bush Presidency. Kevin has a new book out about his time and the common ties that bind both sides, Breaking Through: Communications Lessons From the Locker Room, the Board Room & the Oval Office.

We asked him about those similarities and how he got to where he is today, as a leading advisor to many top notch brands, corporations, leagues and individuals.

While there are many similarities between the work on sports and politics, what is the biggest difference?

In my experience, there are two primary areas in which sports – and the private sector in general – would benefit from taking a page out of the political communications playbook. The first is rapid response. In DC, if a media outlet gets its facts wrong, there is typically a swift public response to quickly set the record straight before the false or misleading information is accepted as conventional wisdom. Mark Cuban’s CyberDust takedown of Chris Broussard after his DeAndre Jordan reporting for ESPN is a rare sports example. Secondly, enlisting and empowering third parties to help carry your message or bolster your image is second nature in Washington. Teams could do that more frequently with corporate partners, respected local officials and others.

You made a big jump from NBC Sports to education, how did it come about?

The jump was actually from NBC Universal – I had hopped the corporate fence after the 2004 Athens Olympics – where I was working in corporate communications and loving it. A friend and mentor from Dallas put me in touch with Margaret Spellings, who had just been sworn in as the new Secretary of Education. When she called, I told her, “Madame Secretary, you’ve got the wrong guy.” Needless to say, she was persuasive. We met for lunch and had the “this is your country calling” conversation. I was being asked to serve and with my non-traditional background, they were only going to ask once. I tell the whole story as the first chapter of the eBook. While I loved my experience at NBC and I never imagined it would actually lead to the White House, as unlikely as it was to go from 30 Rock to Federal Building No. 6 (as the ED building was then known) it turned out to be the best career move I ever made.

There is great value today in storytelling, perhaps more than ever. Who are the best storytellers you have worked with?

Dick Ebersol, for sure, and not just with the Olympics. Storytelling was in the DNA of NBC Sports. The whole idea was to give people a reason to watch – a rooting interest. The stories and emotions and how much people care are the best parts about working in sports. What is the most important skill you tell young people they need to be successful today?

Relationship building. Ultimately, your career is going to be guided by relationships and people – not technology and devices. Enjoy the relationship part – and not just as some notion of networking – because the people and friends you make are what stays with you and provides the most joy. Pick up the phone and actually call once in a while instead of texting or emailing.

Of all the accomplishments you have had, what is the one that you are most proud of?

Being married to Jo Anne for 32-plus years. She encouraged me to take the NBC Sports job…to pursue the opportunity with NBC Universal…to take the leap to the U.S. Department of Education when so much of it (temporary job, for starters) made no sense. She supported me and was a sage counselor while I worked at the White House and when together we started our consulting practice. One more piece of good advice for young people: Surround yourself with good people who have your best interests at heart.

Who do you like to read or follow and why?

Time is so tight, I read lots of round-up columns to stay current, starting with The Sherman Report to keep my current on sports media news. TVNewser, PRNewser and those sites are great. Same with the “RealClear” sites. Politico Playbook and Sports Business Daily are “musts.” I read Steve Rushin in SI because he is so talented and fun. Dr. Nick Morgan’s site, Public Words, is in my regular rotation, as is the “White Sox Insider” blog. Time magazine is underappreciated. And I love the NYT obit section – talk about great storytelling.

What remains the biggest difference from when you started to today in terms of issues you come across with clients?

Speed. There is no news cycle and very little time to think and plan once you’re in the soup. That’s why it’s so important to game out the types of scenarios you need to be prepared for – and to do that prep in advance.

What is the one thing you would like people to take away from the book?

The eBook is essentially for communications professionals, so on the personal front, I hope people see that as PR professionals, we shouldn’t pigeon-hole ourselves or become defined by others. These skills have never been more important and they translate from one sector to another. If I can end up at the White House, anybody can. On the professional front, it’s the notion that in order to break through, you need a simple message targeted to your audience brought to life by storytelling.

For more on Kevin Sullivan check out

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