SPRB is pleased to post this interview with Nate Ewell, who is the Director of Media Relations for the Washington Capitals as well as founder/editor for Inside College Hockey. Not only does he get to work for an exciting hockey team and with a dynamic personality in star forward Alex Ovechkin, but Ewell and the rest of the Caps’ PR department has won the Dick Dillman Award three years in a row. The award is given to the PR staff judged to be the best in each conference as voted by the Professional Writers Hockey Association. I want to thank Ewell for taking the time to answer my many questions for SPRB. Enjoy!
1) How did you get your current position with the Capitals and how long have you held that position? What previous work experiences helped prepare you for your position?
This will be my seventh season with the Capitals, my fifth in a row. I had worked in sports information and for the student paper at Princeton and after graduating took an internship with the sports information department at Michigan State. That evolved into a full-time position and I was there for three years, working mostly with the hockey team but also other sports (football, women’s golf, etc.). After Michigan State I had a brief stint with US Lacrosse before I learned about a position with the Capitals in 2000. I spent two years as a manager in the media relations department before leaving in 2002 to work for NBC at the Salt Lake Olympics. After that I worked outside of sports, editing home and design books and magazines, while launching a web site, InsideCollegeHockey.com.
After the lockout my boss Kurt Kehl invited me back to the Capitals and I was happy to take him up on it.
I think everything I’ve done has helped me prepare for this job – even editing home plan magazines when I wasn’t working in sports – but I probably learned the most during my stints in sports info at Princeton and Michigan State.
2) Your department has created its own Twitter account, blog, and Caps Today feature on the website to keep media members (and fans) abreast of any new Caps developments. When did you decide that these would be beneficial platforms to use and what has the reception been like from the media?
We launched each of those projects independently, but in general they fit the idea of the organization providing more original content, and our department reaching fans directly rather than relying on the media to carry our message.
Caps Today started two years ago as an email to our media with two main goals: give them the next three days’ practice schedule to help with planning and give them a good, timely storyline to try to convince them to come out (or to help bring them up to speed in case they did come out). It’s been overwhelmingly positive, with a big benefit we didn’t foresee – it starts a lot of conversations with media members who will reply to the email.
We started our @capsmedia Twitter account last year simply because we had members of the media ask to get practice schedule updates via text. We did some research and that seemed like the easiest way. As Twitter has exploded, however, we’ve been able to use it in other ways as well (releases, notes during games, even audio interviews using TweetMic). Some media have been slow to convert but I think those who are on Twitter appreciate it. I also have a Twitter account (@nateeewell) as does our assistant director of media relations, Paul Rovnak (@paulrovnak).
The blog gives us a chance to write a bit and share some behind-the-scenes stories, and to alert our fans of upcoming interviews or good stories. I’m not sure we’ve found the best uses for it yet – or if it has much of a readership – but it’s something we enjoy doing and hopefully some people find it useful or entertaining.
3) Back in September, the Caps hosted a media fantasy hockey camp. How did your staff come up with such an innovative idea and why did you feel it was an important event to host?
I’m not sure our idea was unique, but as people have always said, it can be easier to appreciate hockey if once you’ve played it. We wanted to give our media a sense of how difficult and fun the game is. I had also seen at Michigan State the benefits of inviting media to golf with our women’s golf team – many of them did stories simply because they got to know the athletes better. Here, it was an opportunity for our media to interact with our players in a different setting.
4) The Caps were the first organization to credential a hockey blogger (to my knowledge), what made you decide to do so and how has this decision helped your organization? Have you altered your blogger policy since its inception in 2007? If so, why?
Ted Leonsis, our owner, and Eric McErlain, of Off Wing Opinion, deserve the credit on this front, but it was an approach that made sense on many levels from a PR standpoint. First, we weren’t getting terrific mainstream coverage at the time, and I think it’s important that fans get to read about their team – their experience has to extend beyond the time they spend at the game. We’re blessed with some creative, talented bloggers and I think they gave fans another level of coverage. I also think it helped to tell our story outside of Washington, D.C., since hockey fans read blogs from all over, and it helped prod the mainstream media locally to improve their coverage, at least online.
I think the guidelines do a good job of addressing some of the fears PR people have about bloggers. They require bloggers to have an established audience, just as we would before we credentialed a new newspaper (if there were such a thing in this day and age). They also hold bloggers to a professional standard. There’s still room for judgment on our staff’s side, but the guidelines that Eric, Ted and our group development have served us well.
5) Your department has been honored with three straight Dillman Awards. What does that award say about your department and what do you think it takes to win this award?
This is tough to answer, but I can say that it’s an award we don’t take lightly. The media are our customers, and it’s very meaningful to us that they think we are doing a good job. As for what it takes to win, it helps having cooperative management, coaches and players. And I think one of the keys is that our whole department – Kurt Kehl, Paul Rovnak, Kelly Murray and I, along with our interns and game-night staffers – want to do the best job we can. We don’t settle for doing just enough to get by.
6) For stories in national publications or broadcasts like ESPN the Magazine or E:60, what is your department’s role in the process? Do you pitch the story and/or assist the media throughout the story?
Every situation is unique. We’ve pitched some very good national stories but I think the interest for those types of outlets usually comes from them. For the cover of ESPN the Magazine last year, they had an editor who spent some time with our team and we were able to suggest some storylines. Once it was nailed down we invited their writer to spend the day with Alex when we celebrated his MVP award in DC in June, then coordinated an elaborate photo shoot with a bunch of our players when camp opened in September.
The E:60 piece was an even longer process. We had mutual interest in doing the story, and at first looked at going over to Russia to spend time with Alex. They ended up doing it in DC during the season over the course of a couple of months. That’s probably the most notable thing about national stories like that – they can require a lot of time.
7) Alex Ovechkin is one of the faces of the league and a very popular personality. How does a superstar player like that affect your media relations efforts?
Alex truly makes our job easy – not only does he naturally attract media coverage with his talent and personality, but he’s a genuinely good person who understands the responsibilities that come with his role.
His status does change what we do a bit, in a few ways. One, we say no to things a lot more than we’d like to – not because he’s not willing, but because the demands on his time are overwhelming. Sometimes we can use that to open up opportunities for his teammates. We also funnel all of his requests through one person so that we always have a point person who knows what is being asked of him (we do the same for Coach Boudreau).
Alex being Russian presents some unique challenges as well. There’s a perception – which I don’t agree with – that his English isn’t good enough for certain settings. So we have to combat that at times. And there’s an entire Russian audience that wants to talk to him, too – we try to be mindful of giving the Russian press an opportunity to speak with him in Russian, which sometimes means we have to cut off English interviews.
8) What advice would you give to someone looking for an internship or full-time job in sports PR? What skills, experiences, and education would you look for when hiring someone?
The first thing I would advise is to start pursuing internships early – if you are in college, work in sports info as a freshman or sophomore. Even though I’m not in the college sports info world any more, I think it’s particularly valuable. There are more opportunities to do meaningful work in sports information than in most professional sports internships.
As for skills, the big one I look for is writing ability. That’s the root of any success in this business – you have to be able to write. Anyone interested in sports PR should write as much as they can, whether it is in internships, for student papers or on blogs they create.
Finally, devour as much media as possible. Read the paper (or online version). Subscribe to Sports Illustrated. Get an RSS reader and subscribe to blogs and web sites. Watch not only SportsCenter and televised games, but also the sportscasts on the local news. Listen to sports talk radio (although it can be painful at times). In sports PR, we’re working with all of these forms of media – we need to understand how they work and what types of stories interest them.