Former White House communications director on similarities, differences of covering sports and politics
July 30, 2015 / Poynter.org
Kevin Sullivan’s vast career in public relations has taken him from the NBA to NBC to the White House. Sports always have been a focal point, even for the most important job interview of his life.
In 2006, Sullivan was recommended to serve as the communications director for George Bush. However, he still had to pass the test in meeting the president.
Sullivan knew Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, was a big sports fan. So he was ready when the president asked, “Where are you from?”
“Chicago, sir. White Sox, not Cubs,” said Sullivan, a native of Chicago’s South Side.
Sullivan obviously had the credentials, but the sports connection helped seal the deal. He then had a front row seat in the White House through the end of Bush’s second term.
Sullivan writes about that experience and more in a new e-book, “Breaking Through: Communications Lessons from the Locker Room, Boardroom and White House.” After leaving Washington, he opened his own strategic communications firm, advising a mix of corporations, sports teams and leagues. He also continues to work for the former president, serving as a communication consultant for the Bush Presidential Center.
Sullivan’s book offers his perspective and advice to PR professionals on how to survive in the new media landscape. He has seen it all in a career in which he served in PR roles with the Dallas Mavericks, NBC Sports, NBC Universal along with working in the White House. Naturally, the sports angle pops up frequently throughout the book.
“In Washington, a lot of conversations start by talking about your favorite team,” Sullivan said.
In an interview, Sullivan notes the PR similarities between the sports and political worlds.
“Sports is a tremendous training ground to work in any field,” Sullivan said. “In sports, it is about information and access, just like in the White House. There’s the pressure to break stories.
“In sports, passions run high. It’s the best part of working in sports. The same is true about Washington…[Reporters who cover sports and politics] both understand they are covering something that is important to people.”
Tiger Woods probably would be surprised to learn that there was a “Tiger Woods Rule” during Sullivan’s tenure in the White House. It stemmed from Sullivan’s days at NBC Sports when the network was writing a boilerplate release for an upcoming golf tournament. Dick Ebersol, then NBC Sports’ chairman, noted that Woods was playing after a long layoff.
“He said, ‘Let’s get [the part about Woods] at the top,” Sullivan said. “He wanted us to play up that he was coming back from injury and that we would have his return on our network. I never had looked at it that way. Tell the story. Paint a picture. Get to the good stuff right away.”
Hence, the “Tiger Woods Rule,” which went from NBC Sports to the White House.
“In Washington, if you’re explaining, you’re losing,” Sullivan said. “That’s why you’ve got to keep it simple.”
Naturally, Sullivan said there are some fundamental differences in the coverage of sports and Washington. He contends sports entities are poor at setting the record straight.
Recently, Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban went on the offensive about what he considered an inaccurate ESPN report about a potential free agent. Sullivan believes Cuban’s reaction was a rarity in sports.
“The one thing sports can learn from is the notion of rapid response,” Sullivan said. “You rarely see someone in sports say, ‘That’s just wrong’ like Cuban did. It happens every day in Washington. If a reporter gets it wrong, or the story is misleading, you should correct it.”
Another difference involves what Sullivan terms “the transaction” between the subject and reporter. In Washington, the terms of an interview are often discussed, and it involves some give-and-take.
Sullivan recalled an instance when Bush was giving exit interviews during the end of his term. Bush wanted to talk his Faith-Based initiative.
“We told him that there would be questions about the economy and other issues,” Sullivan said. “But we said if he was able to address two or three questions about [the Faith-Based initiative], that would be a good bargain for us. He understood it. In sports, I’m not sure that happens as much [with coaches and top executives].”
Sullivan maintains there is one common thread between sports, Washington, and every other entity: Building relationships between PR representatives and reporters. Reporters always have had a high regard for Sullivan dating back to his Mavericks days. Besides an easy-going demeanor, Sullivan conveys a feeling of trust; the sense that he is looking out for everyone’s best interests.
“It really all gets back to relationship building,” Sullivan said. “It’s important to build relationships when you’re not selling a story. When I’m working with clients, I have a checklist. One of the questions is, ‘Who do you have relationships with [in the media]?’ If you don’t have those relationships, you better start building on that.”