Today is Part 2 of an informational interview that I had by phone with Matt Barnhart, who is the Detroit Lions Director of Media Relations. We spent nearly 45 minutes talking about public relations and the Lions so I decided to break it into multiple posts this week. In today’s post, Matt addresses the NFL Draft. Tomorrow’s post will feature Q&A with Matt regarding the Lions’ 0-16 season in 2008 and how he deals with blogs and rumor websites. If you haven’t read them already, be sure to check out Part 1 of the informational interview.
1) The Lions had the top pick in 2009 and obviously the draft generates so much media attention, especially of late. What types of things did you and your staff do in the weeks leading up to the draft and then actually on draft day when it comes to that overall first pick?
As the off-season kind of developed, we started to realize that there’s nothing we can do about the past and it helped us that we had a new face in terms of our head coach, Jim Schwartz, who does a tremendous job with the media. The way he handles the media positively impacts the development of this team. We quickly realized that no matter where we go, whether it’s the combine or owner’s meetings, we’re going to receive a lot of attention and there’s going to be a lot of people requesting for his time and our time because they want to know what’s going on and they want to know who we’re picking. The draft has become such a huge event – it’s one of the top events in all of sports and probably the top non-game event on the sports calendar each year. With that number one pick, all focus for the months leading up was focused on us because with the number one pick we held the key to the rest of the draft.
Overall, we just tried to maximize our opportunities because there are certain messages and certain things that we wanted to get across and we knew we were going to have the forums and interest from people writing about our team. Now there were also situations that we knew because of the interest we wanted to make sure that we handled the information flow effectively. One of the things our general manager, Martin Mayhew, set forth right at the beginning of the off-season was that he was he was going to hold a lot of information close to the vest, especially relating to our personnel and the number one pick. He didn’t want to give anyone any information that would enable them to plan a certain way that would affect our draft. We were very strategic in what we said and how we proceeded so that’s some of the things that went on last year. That strategy is ongoing and I think it helped up throughout last year’s draft, which turned out pretty successful.
As things got going and we started meeting with some potential players who could be our first round picks, our senior vice president spent a lot of time with each of the potential picks to get a feel for who they are, what they know about the media, how we deal with the media, what they can expect and what they can expect from our department. Some of the issues were like, ‘If we pick you, this is the reaction that we are expecting.’ We were able to help them be prepared even before (Matthew) Stafford was signed the day of the draft. We had a lot of good opportunities to do that because we know the number one pick gets so much attention, so we wanted to make sure that we handled that appropriately.
You usually do not want be the number one pick because that means you had a really bad season, but there was an opportunity with the interest to maximize opportunities there, and I think we did a really good job at doing it the right way. We took advantage of some situations and we made sure we delivered our messages appropriately.
Q: During the Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL PR staff comes in and handles certain aspects of the event. How is it with the NFL Draft? Is it primarily teams taking care of each of their draftees or does the league PR handle it more?
When it comes to the players who are actually in New York at the draft, the NFL PR takes them through their media obligations at the site. For the rest of the draftees, because you’re only talking about 10-12 people at max in New York, once they’re picked the media obligations and media opportunities are handled through the team. Even when Stafford was in New York we talked to him because we wanted to update him on any issues before he talked to anybody to prepare him for anything he might encounter. Again, we tried to eliminate surprises.
We work very well with our league office and our league office really respects the job that teams do, and I think that’s one of the greatest assets about the NFL. I’m not knocking in any way other sports because I don’t have their experiences, but I appreciate our league office because of their ability to understand and work with the teams and the draft is something that’s an extension of that cooperation. We worked together before the draft in coordinating many elements.
Our situation with Stafford was kind of unique. Basically, they (NFL PR in New York) were going through a situation that they never really had experienced before. In the past when a player got signed before the draft, it was like Friday or Thursday or earlier that week. Basically this came down to literally an hour before the draft actually started. So once that contract got confirmed and done, we were doing some media stuff here with our general manager, but yet we worked with the league in getting Stafford on the phone before the draft even started so our media wouldn’t have to wait until some of his obligations in New York. One of our objectives was that we wanted to make sure that when it was official that he talked to the Detroit media first. He was basically talking to the city of Detroit and our fan base first, obviously with the media as the conduit, but we wanted to make sure that happened and we worked with the league and they were very supportive.