“I think one of the things that I always forget is how young some of the athletes are,” says the Pepperdine graduate. “Some of them leave college after one year, so we’re dealing with 18 and 19 year olds. In some cases they still need to grow-up or learn about their role as a professional athlete.”
To run an effective community relations program, which relies on athlete involvement, there is a great deal of learning and relationship building.
“I think the fact that these guys play a sport in front of a crowd, people assume that they love attention, which is not always the case,” says Collart. “From a community relations perspective, we try to get to know each athlete so that we can assist their personal initiatives and better understand what they do and don’t feel comfortable doing.”
Here’s more on what its like working in community relations from Heather Collart:
Sports jobs aren't always easy to come by, especially working for a pro team – how did you get this opportunity?
Collart: NETWORKING! I was lucky enough to build a relationship via social media with Peter Stringer of the Celtics and sought his advice. When the job with the Pistons came along, he believed in my abilities and put in a good word.
HARD WORK was next…and that was all me. I had a phone interview and an in-person interview and conveyed both my passion and dedication to my career thus far and what that would look like for them if they hired me.
Lastly, NO FEAR… I moved from Los Angeles to Michigan basically sight-unseen and without knowing anyone, but I knew it was what I needed to do to further my career.
Obviously there is a lot of work that goes into creating positive programs in the community – what would you say are the three most important skills for someone to have that wants to work in community relations?
Patience – not everyone sees value in social responsibility and as such sometimes budgets are lower (think of a non-profit) and resources are scarce. Projects sometimes take a bit to get off the ground.
Passion – anything less than genuine care for community relations programs and missions will come across as disingenuous
Organization – we’re usually running in a ton of different directions, so like anyone in sports marketing or event planning, being organized is a MUST
(had to throw in two more) Creativity – finding ways to reinvent events or initiatives can be fun, but it should also be a requirement to present your work
Relationship Skills – Interpersonal skills. Period. Boom. However you want to emphasize this one!
(Editors note: I think the ‘Period. Boom.’ Emphasized it quite well)
When you hire interns or entry level employees for sports jobs in the community relations department, what are the primary things you are looking for?
Collart: A well-rounded view of the business and an ability to share those thoughts and ideas.
Very rarely can someone come in with one flashy attribute, we need someone who will look at everything through a 360-degree lens and think about everything from ticket sales to social media. No more silos and no more operating in a vacuum, we just can’t afford to have that many “specialists”.
Finally, a proactive and self-starting work habit is non-negotiable, all potential hires must have it.
On a day-to-day basis what are the biggest priorities, challenges and objectives of your role?
Collart: The largest priorities on a day-to-day basis are making sure that community relations not only is working towards our department’s goals but also seeing how we can assist other departments with their goals. For instance, planning a community event so that it’s more attractive to a corporate partner, either in exposure or in alignment with their community goals.
Our department is very integrated into the rest of the business, so while I prioritize achieving our goals and assisting our athlete’s with theirs, we also want to be an asset to the rest of the departments in our company.
This can also lead to challenges as community relations can easily become the middle-man in a situation, when we need to be in the driver’s seat.
If we’re able to accomplish the goals of community relations, a partner (whether that be a community partner, athlete, corporate partner, ticket purchaser, etc) and correctly promote our company and team’s brand within the greater community, then we’ve hit our goals.
You graduated from Pepperdine with a degree in Public Relations and then went back for your MBA – why did you make the choice to pursue a career in community relations? And more specifically, why in sports?
Collart: I have always loved sports – to me they’re something that anyone can enjoy and digest in the same way regardless of background. It’s really the great equalizer.
When I started at Pepperdine, I applied for a job within their athletics department and held a student position for my four years of undergrad. A few months before graduation, the Athletics Director offered me a job – I took it!
Pepperdine also has a great MBA program for people who don’t want to put their career on hold to go back to school, so I was able to get my MBA while continuing to work and progress my career in athletics.
After 12 amazing years in the Pepperdine Athletics Department, I decided I wanted to grow my experience and expand my knowledge. I started exploring opportunities that fit both my experience and passions and found the perfect fit with the Detroit Pistons in their community relations department. The role encompasses and works with so many areas that I’m interested in…. all while doing good. It’s a perfect fit.
A big part of your role must involve event planning – can you take us through what an event day is like for you?
Collart: We’re lucky enough to have multiple people outside of community relations who assist with events, so we go into events well prepared with everything from public relations coverage to knowing that we have the right audio/visual equipment on hand.
In most cases, the day of an event involves everything from high-level run throughs, trouble-shooting all the way to getting your hands dirty and setting-up. I always try to keep perspective on what the audience will see and perceive and as long as we can frame that correctly, then we’re in good shape.
In the end, whether events go smoothly or not, if the audience enjoyed themselves, it was a good day! If that happened, I leave with a smile on my face (maybe just a little tired).
Have you had any specific community events that stand out in your mind as something lasting and special?
Collart: Last year we hosted over 750 deserving people for Thanksgiving dinner on our arena’s floor with a partner food bank and provided them with a first class dining experience and entertainment.
Seeing how excited everyone was and thankful to have a special meal meant a lot to personally have planned and executed that event. Just as important was seeing how much fun our athletes, their families and our staff had serving these people – which only further demonstrates how fun and inspiring volunteer work can be.
I have also helped plan (going on our 3rd season) a visit of our athletes and coaching staff to St. Jude’s Children’s hospital in Memphis when we play there.
Just providing cheer to their patients and families is priceless. We’ve also been able to host current and former St. Jude patients from Michigan here at a home game, making these children smile is simply awe inspiring.
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