David Alexander is a founder of Calacus PR, sports PR expert, and CIPR Chartered Practitioner. He agreed to share with me insights and tips for people who would like to start a career in sports communication as a graduate or journalist.
Piotr Boiwka: At the beginning, thank you David for finding a time to chat with me. Could you please tell me why you did you decide to pursue a career in sports PR?
David Alexander: I’d always wanted to be a sports journalist. I became quite successful in that and I enjoyed it. Over time I started to realise that the Internet is going to create challenges for newspaper industries that might be impossible to overcome.
I have seen that everything was going online. I was freelance journalist in many newspapers and what also irritated me was the preference for negative stories. And I found that quite difficult because I wanted to be positive. I wanted to be to showcase how sport can do things positively, and how it can have a great impact on things.
I wanted to move to a positive, fresh environment and also challenge myself. That’s why I moved into PR.
P: That’s very interesting. Do you think this path is also good for current journalists who would like to start working in PR?
D: No, I think when I moved into PR, which was around 2003/2004, newspapers still had some power. And being a someone with a newspaper mindset, being able to work quickly under pressure, and also having contacts in newspapers was incredibly valuable.
I had the value because I had the contacts and I knew people that could help me get stories that perhaps some of the juniors didn’t get. But the flip side was, I didn’t have some of the basic PR skills that were necessary at that time.
P: What were the obstacles?
D: When I started, I had no experience in using Excel, Powerpoint, or giving a pitch or presentation. I’d never stood in front of an audience and spoken. Even if I did broadcasting, I was behind a microphone. There were so many elements that I hadn’t done.
In my early days in big agencies, they’d say, oh, could you put a presentation together, just a pitch document. And I had no idea where to start.
So that was very difficult. In the world of big agencies, where I was running an account, there were some people working on accounts as well who used to go to the directors and say: “David can’t even do this’…it’s not fair that he’s senior to us,” even though my skills were in different areas and there was definitely a value in me being a journalist at that point.
P: What can a journalist bring to PR agency right now?
D: In time this value I mentioned has been erased. What’s important is knowing what makes a good story, how to write, how to present things in a coherent way and changing different writing styles. Those things are still crucial, but I think it is less important now than when I was starting my PR career.
I still get senior journalists saying to me, ‘oh, you know, I really want to get into a PR now’. They don’t understand that just because they have been a journalist does not guarantee that they will be a good PR consultant. And to be honest, when I went into PR, I didn’t think ‘Well, I’ve been a journalist. So I’m going to be great at PR.’
I spent a lot of time working really hard, doing qualifications and becoming a chartered practitioner. I wanted to learn as much as I could about many elements of PR. And I still do it, so that I could be in a stronger position to be able to represent myself.
Even now after many years, I am focusing on professional development. We all have different elements of the PR mix that we are stronger or weaker in.
I can tell I am a good storyteller but I don’t think that is enough currently. You have to be far more technical these days.
P: I think it’s very valuable what you just said. Probably many people may perceive these changing roles from journalists to PR person as rather fluid. But just what you said, it’s not that easy. And many different skills are necessary for different positions.
Can you tell me what you find interesting in your everyday job?
D: I think it’s the variety of everyday activities. One day you are working on research, the next day you are pitching documents, the following it’s something new.
Everybody will find something for themselves. One will enjoy pursuing new businesses because he or she loves sales. I like building relationships with clients, and building their trust, and working with them for so long that we understand each other inside out, and that isn’t an easy thing to do.
I also really enjoy the constant evolution of PR practice. The industry is so much different than it was when I started and you have to be prepared for this change and learn all the time.
P: Interesting. I agree with this variety. It also was the main thing that encouraged me to go into PR. Evolving relationships might be even better. I hope it’s ahead of me. What do you think is the most important skills to be successful in sports PR industry?
D: As I mentioned before, one of the most important skills in PR is writing. You have to be a good storyteller, write correctly, and engagingly. Also ability to multitask, identify where the gaps and problems are, that’s also crucial.
You’ve got to be able to have good relationships with people, even when they’re not aware of what PR is. And there’s a fine line between being firm with clients, and being able to be the balance between what a client wants and what you can give them. But also being able to tell them what they need when they’re talking complete rubbish, which is a regular occurrence.
The ability to persuade people when they are wrong without hurting their pride is also very important. Also problem solving skills and being able to identify future problems. All of that will make a great PR practitioner.
P: What is the best way to get the first job in sports PR?
D: Well, I think you’ve got to show a history of experience and understanding. You’ve got to understand the companies that you’re applying for, and the individuals who you are going to be talking to. You need to find out a lot of information about them.
You need to know what the biggest trends are right now, how the industry is changing. But ultimately, the most important thing is the ability to learn quickly. Especially in entry level positions, you are supposed to quickly learn and get along with people.
The ability to bring new business to the agency is invaluable. Being entrepreneurial could be a key, as that’s all about getting clients and new businesses to thrive on the market. Understanding and developing relationships with existing clients is also crucial. It’s also good to show professional membership
P: Fantastic, that’s really valuable. Some last tips for graduates who would like to start a career in sports PR?
D: Make sure every letter that you write is tailored. If you send a letter that says, ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, or ‘Hi there’, or ‘To whom it may concern’, you make it more likely to be ignored. It doesn’t take long these days on the internet to find out who the founder or managing director or CEO or whoever is.
Even if you write it to a generic address, that shouldn’t stop you from being able to address it to the most senior person in an organisation.
the other thing, which is part of that is, is where someone is sending a lot of letters out on email, and, and they just changed the name, and all they end up doing is copying and pasting, sometimes in different fonts.
If you can’t show that attention to detail when you start, then how you’re going to show attention to detail on work that goes to journalists or to clients. Take care about it because it can really be a reason for being unsuccessful.
P: Perfect, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with me today. I think it will be a great piece for everyone interested in working in sports PR.
If you would like to check my previous texts, you can find it here.