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Heisman Trophy PR: Is the Press Better Than the Prize?

Robert Chilver

It’s nearly college football season and no doubt you’ll soon be hearing plenty of talk about the best teams and players in the nation. But while biased fans and alumni are expected to pub their alma mater, it’s those alma maters themselves that might be most guilty of self promotion.

For many athletic programs around the nation, this is the time their public relations department kicks into full gear. Most will be pushing for fan support. But a growing number of athletic departments are also making big pushes for award support, namely the Heisman trophy. The Wall Street Journal’s Darren Everson recently wrote a great article chronicling these Heisman PR campaigns. Perhaps most interesting to PR professional will be a few of the promotional tactics used, which, depending on your perspective, could be deemed either creative or cheesy.

As Everson points out, Memphis University created die-cast race cars with running back DeAngelo William’s number 20 on them. Marshall University sent out bobbleheads in QB Byron Leftwich’s likeness and The University of Missouri’s “Chase the Heisman” campaign went as far giving out 3-D slide viewers with pictures of star QB Chase Daniel.

This year in Chicago, Northwestern University has made a few noticeable PR pushes, one marketing the Wildcats as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and more recently, a “PersaStrong” campaign for QB Dan Persa to win the Heisman. "As long as it gets attention for our program, I'm fine with it," Persa reportedly said.

And that quote basically sums these PR campaigns up perfectly.

These schools aren’t as much looking for trophy wins as much as attention, publicity or anything else to point more eyes toward their program. Those in the PR world often refer to our industry as a “snowball”. It’s a long process that begins with small victories. A campaign may eventually turn into a huge success but it usually won’t take place overnight.

The same can be said for these college football campaigns. I’m going to assume most of the athletic departments realize their players are still longshots to win the Heisman trophy. But just as they hoped, we’re talking about their football program right now. Northwestern will probably never be “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” because of the wide array of alumni that reside in the city. But perhaps they are in the conversation now, something that might not have been the case just a few years ago.

So what else to these PR indicatives accomplish? In the short term, we know that superstars put fans in the seats so associating a player with the Heisman trophy can’t hurt attendance. But in the longer frame of things, these PR initiatives could grow into even an even bigger success story, namely in the form of recruits. Launching these campaigns helps players trust that the school is dedicated to helping the football program, and their players, succeed. That might be just enough to lure the next big recruit over a rival.

This is an important lesson for corporate public relations as well. One big placement isn’t going to change your business. But as the “snowball” gets going faster, your name gets noticed, momentum can build and more people recognize you within the industry. Then when that next big potential client or “recruit” comes to visit, you’ll have built a solid foundation to draw them in. If you win a couple awards in the process, well that’s just an extra point.