Hello all. Yes we have another Elon Werner installment on this day, but it’s also some holiday known as New Year’s Eve. Who knew?
Anyway, I really liked this blog because it answers the question I’ve typed as the headline. I know for a fact that not too many race fans know what any team’s PR rep really does. Heck, most crew guys don’t know. Some of the drivers probably don’t. Elon fully illustrates how he has always handled his challenging job expertly, but that brings up another point.
Not all PR people are cut from the same cloth. We all attack our jobs in our own way, playing to our strengths, which may or may not be a function of satisfying the team owner, driver, or client we are representing. You need a good fit. I’d be a terrible crew guy (trust me) and most of them wouldn’t cut it as a PR rep. You need that good fit, like comfortable sneakers or your favorite jeans.
Elon is a world-class PR and management person, and I’ve admired him as a terrific “sales pitch” guy on the media relations side of the job. That’s one of my weak spots. He loves the long game of chasing down writers or publications, building a rapport, and finally either convincing them to do a story or just wearing them down to where they can’t say no anymore. He’s the best in the business at that. No, seriously, he’s the best. No one is a close second.
He’s also a master organizer. I had to do a lot of that during the CSK and LRS years, but I had the distinct pleasure of working with Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson. They both became great friends, allies, and collaborators. And so easy to work for.
I was always just more of a writer, but I’d step out of my comfort zone and go with the sales pitch technique from time to time. The 8-inch story I landed in USA Today, on Page 3 of Sports, when we expanded to two CSK Funny Cars in 2000 was the result of a solid two months of correspondence with writer Gary Graves. We still stay in touch now, and when he spoke to Del after the story Gary said, “Your PR guy is persistent. He did a great job with this.” That’s a compliment. But, I mostly concentrated on the relationship building and being the best creative writer I could be.
I’d guess that 90% of the features or mentions I landed were a product of the trust the writer or TV producer had in me, and the originality of the story I had sent them or told them about. I concentrated on getting to know all the right people, and writing things they liked and appreciated. And I always knew that, in motorsports, having a great relationship with the sponsor was as critical as any story. I was fortunate to work with some great marketing people, from the late Joe Spica at CSK, where I also had the pleasure of working nearly every day with Jim Schoenberger and Ron Chisler, to Dick Levi himself at Levi, Ray, & Shoup, where I also treasured my relationships with Shannon Heisler and many others.
As you will read below, Elon’s organizational and management approach could be a lot like herding kittens. He’s a tireless worker, who has put up with a lot during is career. I was a tireless writer, who liked to build my stable of friends and trusted colleagues during my career. This blog perfectly illustrates Elon’s adept handling of seemingly overwhelming details, and it’s about something completely different from his drag racing gig. It’s about college football. You didn’t know he did this, did you?
At races, did we all sit around and make each other laugh in the press room, while eating the free catering? Yes, that happened. Elon and I are both very fortunate to have shared that space with legends, stars, and really phenomenal people. We loved our time in the NHRA press room. But, when it was time to “do the job” we all got after it with purpose and skill. I guess the fact that both of us and so many of our colleagues have done this for a very long time means our work was valued and appreciated.
Happy New Year, everyone! It’s also the 23rd anniversary that Barbara Doyle and I have shared. I was wise. I figured I’d never forget the date if we were married on New Year’s Eve.
On this day in 1997, we stood on the edge of a gorgeous beach in Maui and said “I do” to each other. We are humbled and appreciative that people all over the world throw massive parties for us on this date (well, not this year) but we never understood why we had to wait until midnight to pop the bubbly and actually celebrate. After all, we got married around 7:00 pm. It’s a mystery.
Here’s Elon… Oh, and as always if you like what you’re about to read share the love with Elon by clicking on the “Like” button at the bottom.
This weekend will be one of the busiest weekends in college football. Why am I bringing up the obvious to some diehard sports fans, you might ask? In addition to working with some of the biggest names and teams in motorsports, I have had the privilege to work with some of the best organizations in college football.
Since the inception of the College Football Playoff (CFP) the company I work for, Tony Fay Public Relations, has worked with the organization to assist with media operations outside of the stadium. In years past the events surrounding the national championship game have had a Super Bowl feel, which is perfect when you think about what the CFP has become to college football. In addition to the game, CFP has hosted free big-name headliner concerts and fan interactive zones that fill up convention centers. They have coordinated 5K runs for charity and hosted specialty chef events celebrating the culinary history or “Tastes” of the host city. One of their biggest initiatives is the Extra Yard for Teachers program that celebrates teachers from across the country and their many accomplishments in the classroom. Each year state “teachers of the year” are hosted at the event and a “national teacher of the year” is named.
Working with the CFP national championship game is a PR highlight of my year. The first CFP national championship game was in Arlington, Texas, at AT&T Stadium, and I was put in charge of media operations at Playoff Fan Central, which was housed in the Dallas Convention Center. Playoff Fan Central is the free fan experience event that has interactive games and activities, sponsor booths, food, and even an indoor football field for youth clinics and the bands. Since that game, Playoff Fan Central has become my go-to event for the national championship weekend and I enjoy every minute of my time roaming the displays.
I have coordinated media opportunities for Playoff Fan Central for almost every CFP game. I have worked the games in Tampa, Atlanta, San Francisco and coming up Miami, and it has been a blast. My main job is to work with the media from the host city as well as the media covering the two teams in the national championship game, to make sure they get access to Playoff Fan Central and I also assist them with story ideas. I am always on the lookout for interesting fans or cool backstories and it helps pass the time as I chat up the folks enjoying the activities.
There are always multi-generational families of fans that come to the game to root on their alma mater or favorite team. In Atlanta I ran into a group that was five generations of Georgia Bulldog fans. The oldest was 86 and the youngest was less than a year old in a baby carriage. Everyone was decked out, head to toe in Bulldog gear and they couldn’t even add up how many Bulldog games that had attended together over the years.
My other favorite interview subjects to track down are the “divided” families. These are the family units or couples that are rooting for opposing teams. Also in Atlanta, there was a couple who was representing each side of the Alabama versus Georgia game. It was a husband and wife who had graduated from the respective schools and you could tell they were HUGE fans. I connected them with a local Atlanta TV station for an interview and they really went at it trading barbs about the opposing schools. It was great TV but the best part was after the interview was over, when they kept at it and it got a little heated. The TV reporter and I were off to the side just watching this meltdown while trying to contain our enjoyment. Eventually they yelled at each other that they needed to cool off and literally walked off in opposite directions. I have no idea how or if this relationship was reconciled.
The size of Playoff Fan Central also affords us the opportunity to host each school’s band inside for back-to-back sessions of music, cheerleaders and mascots. One of the best things college football has going for it is the bands. I have been lucky to be up close and personal with some of the best bands in the country. The bands from Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and LSU rank at the top of the pyramid when it comes to bringing the noise and the pageantry. Clemson has one of the most talented baton corps and I have been amazed by the skill these young women display when they toss a spinning metal bar in the air while they spin and flip underneath it before catching it behind their backs. They even will add fire to the show, which takes it to the next level.
Working Playoff Fan Central has turned into a PR marathon as the championship has gotten more popular and we have honestly done a better job of promoting it as an interesting and viable media location. I am usually on-site with a media person or group of stations starting at 4 a.m. for the local morning news shows and then lots of stations come back at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. for their evening news. It can get pretty crazy when you have eight or ten different TV stations all in the same huge area, all trying to get the best segment produced. Some are doing live shots and some are taping segments. Technology is amazing, and now most TV stations send a reporter with a backpack that has the satellite hook-up capabilities, a camera and a tripod. They can go just about anywhere there is a Wi-Fi signal and do a live TV segment.
There have even been occasions where I have had to step in and talk about what is going on or give information about the fan activities available. This is rare and I get a fair share of ribbing for this from my co-workers. I was spotted on local TV in Atlanta one morning by Mello Yello NHRA big wig Al Rondon who took the time to shoot me a text afterwards letting me know he had seen me working in my other world. Usually I try to be as helpful as possible assisting media members as they move from location to location, carrying tripods or equipment bags. It is a ton of fun but at the end of the day I am ready for some time off my feet. Comfortable shoes are a PR person’s best friend.
In Playoff Fan Central one of the most popular displays is the Extra Yard for Teachers area. It has a music-blaring school bus with windows that automatically go up and down and fans attempt to throw mini footballs through the open windows. There are three windows per team and fans can throw footballs into the van to earn points for their team. At the end of the weekend all the points for each team are converted to dollars that are donated to the local public school district. Here is the really fun fact about the bus and the contest. For the last three years the team that won the Extra Yard for Teachers bus contest has also won the national championship game.
The college football national championship game also hosts a media day for the two teams which is conducted on Saturday morning. This is a highly coordinated event that is tracked to the minute by the CFP staff. Each team is available for one hour to the national and local media, and the event is held on the floor of an arena in the host city. Fans can come in for free and sit in the stands to watch the various interviews on the JumboTron. They can listen through free multi-channeled headsets that are distributed as they enter the arena. There is a countdown clock running as soon as the teams get positioned in their various stations. The top level players and coaches get their own interview booths we call “hot dog stands” and the media gathers around in huge scrums to shout questions at them.
In Tampa I happened to wind up standing beside Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban as his team was lined up to enter the arena. Normally, I would not have engaged Coach Saban in conversation but I knew we would be waiting for a few minutes so I took my chance to ask him if he thought his players enjoyed these kinds of activities. He gave me a great answer about how he thought it was good for the student-athletes and the schools but he marveled at how the production levels have improved over the years. I told him he was going to be amazed by the intro he was about to see since I knew it had a laser show, big PA intros, and gladiator-style music elements to get the fans in the stands fired up. As I walked off he thanked me for the heads up and I wished him good luck.
A few minutes later I was walking by his interview area and he was recounting the story of his interaction with one of the CFP staff members. He was telling the media how this guy gave him the heads up on the impressive team introduction he was about to see. He said at the time he honestly didn’t believe there would be a laser show but sure enough it was over the top. I had a good chuckle knowing that guy he was talking about was me.
I have also been involved this season with the re-launch of Bowl Season. You might have seen the logo on the fields at bowl games usually around the 20-yard line. We also assisted in the creation of some short videos that have aired on ESPN during a handful of games. Bowl Season is the collective coalition of all the bowl games played in the traditional college football postseason. Basically, we work to highlight the distinctiveness of each of the bowl games along with their histories and traditions as part of one unifying message. Our goal is to help build Bowl Season into a recognizable brand like March Madness is for college basketball.
The biggest event we coordinated was getting the logo featured on an electronic billboard in Time Square in New York City when we relaunched the brand. This was a brainstorming idea that came together pretty quickly and turned out great. We were able to have the logo and motion graphic on the ABC/ESPN screen for 10 minutes on a Monday morning. We had a videographer and photographer on the scene to capture images with Nick Carparelli, the new Bowl Season executive director. You think 10 minutes is a long time but once that logo hits the screen the minutes scream by as you are moving from position to position. We had mapped out a few shots in advance so the process went pretty smoothly and we got a ton of great content.
This year the national championship game will be different since there will understandably not be any supporting events with mass gatherings like concerts or Playoff Fan Central. I am glad the bowl games and the national championship game are moving forward though. The kids playing college football have sacrificed a ton over the course of their young lives so getting a few more games is important to them. For 98% of college football players these bowl games will be the last time they slip on the pads and get to play a game many of them have loved since they were eight years old. I also think it is good that games have been moved around so family can safely attend games and socially distance. This pandemic sucks but seeing college football move forward has provided millions of sports fans with a semblance of normalcy that I think it pretty important. I know I have enjoyed watching them and will look forward to a busy weekend on the couch.