To pursue a career in communications and public relations in professional sports, you might anticipate packing your bags for the nearest top 20 market. However Randy Cleves has thrived in Grand Rapids, spending more than 15 years working with Grand Rapids teams. Randy has a bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from the University of Dayton. After a two-year stint as assistant director of communications for the Kansas City Blades, a minor league hockey team, Randy moved to Grand Rapids in the late 90s to become senior director of public relations for the Grand Rapids Griffins and director of public relations for the Grand Rapids Rampage arena football team (until 2001). We asked Randy a few questions about sports PR in Grand Rapids, along with any advice he has for people looking to get into the business.
What are some of the unique PR/communications challenges your organization faces?
Our biggest challenge over the last decade is the demise of traditional sports media and the accompanying decline of newspaper and TV coverage. At the same time, that has come with a tremendous opportunity: the ability to control our messages and deliver them directly to our fans through all of our social media channels.
In addition, the sports PR realm differs greatly from corporate/traditional PR in several ways. On any given day we could have a few dozen players and coaches essentially serving as spokespeople for the organization during interviews. Adding to the potential for discordant messages is the fact that English is a second language to many of our players. Unlike most businesses, we have a large number of people (i.e. fans) who actively seek out new information about us on a daily basis, challenging us to provide it. And we’ve been known to get upset at media when even bad news (a loss) doesn’t make the front page or the top of the TV news, reflecting what we feel should be our top-of-mind status despite any short-term negative news.
What has been your proudest PR moment so far?
Our run to the Calder Cup championship in 2013 and our celebration/capitalization of it during that summer and throughout the 2013-14 season. The media coverage and fan support throughout the playoffs was incredible and the town was alive with excitement for several weeks. It made me even prouder of my adopted hometown! The whole whirlwind before and after winning the Cup was a huge professional challenge, simply in terms of managing all the requests and tasks. But our staff and organization couldn’t have handled the joyful chaos any better.
Do you have any big goals or plans (for the Griffins) that you can share?
You mean outside of winning the Calder Cup again this season? (Shhh! Don’t tell the other AHL teams.) Next year will mark our franchise’s 20th season, so the planning process is already underway for a celebration of two decades of Griffins Hockey in Grand Rapids. Nothing is set in stone yet, but a lot of fun ideas are on the drawing board.
What advice do you have for other public relations practitioners, especially those who are starting out?
Speaking for the sports PR industry specifically, you absolutely have to gain relevant experience while you are still in school, even before you apply for internships with any teams or organizations. EVERYONE loves sports (they never fail to mention that in their cover letter), but not everyone is willing to put in the hours, the sacrifice and the work to prove their dedication and acquire the necessary skills to be a valuable employee. And given the competition for jobs, I’ll always hire someone with solid experience and a proven desire over a shiny GPA. So volunteer at your college’s sports information or athletic department, write for your school newspaper or volunteer for a West Michigan Sports Commission event. Heck, simply help register runners or pass out water at the Fifth Third Riverbank Run or another of this area’s dozens of races and events. You’ll learn a little about event management and maybe sharpen your writing while building your network and proving to potential employers that you’re much more than just a fan.