Former White House communications director on similarities between covering sports, politics

An excerpt from my latest sports journalism column for Poynter.

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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.”

 

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