Melissa Kleinschmidt, APR, on College Athletics, Strategy and Storytelling

March 2, 2015

Melissa Kleinschmidt, APR
Melissa Kleinschmidt, APR

Melissa Kleinschmidt’s childhood dream was to be a Disney animator and, in college, she wanted to be a broadcast journalist — but then she learned that she “preferred to tell compelling stories from behind the camera, not in front of it.”

Today, she’s the assistant director of strategic initiatives for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, based in Indianapolis, and helps tell the story of NCAA student-athletes and the role of the NCAA as a higher-education association supporting student-athlete success in academics, athletics and life.

She provides integrated communications focused on the NCAA’s mission and selected programs and works with live events, such as award programs and the annual NCAA Convention. Previously, she served as the assistant director of championships and alliances, branding and fan experience.

Before coming to the NCAA, Kleinschmidt was the director of public relations and marketing communications for RATIO Architects, Inc., a national design firm. She also worked as a PR coordinator for DavenportOne, the Chamber of Commerce, and was the director of season ticket operations for the Quad City Mallards hockey team.

Kleinschmidt received her bachelor’s in communications from Valparaiso University and has been a PRSA member since 2007.

“My goal is to tell the stories of how college sports give student-athletes the skills they need to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life,” she says.


What is your role as assistant director of strategic initiatives for the NCAA?

I collaborate with my team to communicate the NCAA’s mission and functions, and explain how the organization is evolving to meet the needs of the 21st-century student-athlete. A major strategy to achieving that goal is planning, promoting and executing our live events and awards programs — one of my core responsibilities. I also manage Speakers Central, the NCAA’s internal resource that equips employees with information about how they can be effective speakers as they communicate their higher education expertise to external audiences.

What are some challenges you face in your day-to-day job?

One of the largest challenges is the perception of who the NCAA is and the organization’s role in creating a framework of rules for fair and safe competition. NCAA members — mostly colleges and universities, but also athletics conferences and affiliated groups — work together to create the rules for fair and safe competition, which are administered by NCAA national office staff.

Much debate focuses on rules related to football and men’s basketball, whose players comprise less than two percent of the total number of student-athletes. What people often don’t know is that nearly 20 percent of all student-athletes are first-generation college students. Their athletic ability positions them to succeed beyond their collegiate experience.

Describe your personal leadership style. Also, what makes a good leader?

My personal leadership style is rooted in the idea that those I lead are people first, each with different experiences and perceptions. Real innovation can occur when diverse teams can unite to achieve common goals. I believe in the power of leaders who listen and provide opportunities for less vocal team members to actively participate in problem solving. The best leaders are those with the ability to push teams creatively, proactively address issues, value the expertise of those around them and let the team do the work to develop the best solutions.

How important is public relations to what the NCAA is trying to accomplish?

Most people don’t often think of the NCAA as a membership organization, but it is. Just as any large membership organization uses strategic PR planning to facilitate mutually beneficial relationships with its various audiences and connect its members via clear and concise communications, so does the NCAA. Public relations is a key component to telling the story of how collegiate athletics creates valuable experiences for student-athletes from all three NCAA divisions.

Talk about your work with the NCAA on championships and alliances as well as the branding and fan experience.

I was tasked with maintaining and growing brand equity via applying a consistent visual presence at numerous championships including the women’s Final Four, the Division I Football Championship, the women’s Division I Volleyball Championship and the women’s College World Series, and maintaining NCAA trademarks. I continue to manage the NCAA Championships logo redesign project, which will be unveiled in the 2015-16 season.

What makes March Madness and other big NCAA events so compelling?

For me, the goal of any ancillary event is to connect the championship to the community that is hosting it. Ancillary events are engaging tools that have the power to drum up excitement, and also further educate potentially unengaged publics about the sport, the NCAA and its partners. To me, March Madness is compelling because it offers highly engaging, unpredictable and dramatic stories during a compact three-week time period. Those strong stories are part of what makes the tournament such an iconic event.

What trends do you see on the horizon for public relations?

One of the reasons I love public relations is because it is an ever-evolving profession, but new challenges come with that. The open nature of our business means there will be continued conversation around transparency and authenticity, and how those concepts relate to company behavior.

Practitioners will continue to find better ways to measure the value of public relations beyond building awareness, focus on what it means to be ethical practitioners, and find innovative ways to marry the public relations and marketing communications functions to more effectively execute strategic plans.

Why is it important to be involved in organizations that focus on networking and continuing education?

I learned best by observing others, and believe that success is often gained by surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. My PRSA national and local memberships connect me with innovators and thought leaders who help me be a better professional, and have introduced me to some lifelong friends who I can call on for advice and support.

Why did you decide to become Accredited and what are the benefits?

The APR is a mark of distinction that proves to my professional community that I know how to deliver strategic communications in ethical ways and with integrity. It proves there is a science behind what I do, and it is an indication of my personal commitment to the profession. The challenge, moving forward, is how to continue to communicate the value of the APR to both members and non-members alike, so that it’s perceived more highly in other professions as well as our own. 

What advice do you have for those looking to break into the sports sector of public relations?

One of my mentors told me that “good PR transcends all industries,” and I firmly believe that. I’d tell anyone interested in the profession — sports PR or otherwise — to cultivate exceptional writing skills, be adaptable, never say “never,” make continuing education a priority and don’t forget to pay it forward.

What are some of your favorite NCAA events to watch as a fan?

As a fan, I gravitate toward athletic events that celebrate female student-athletes. I’ve seen how athletics can give young women the confidence and power to succeed both on and off the field of play. I love that female student-athletes are becoming new role models for up-and-coming generations of young women.


Managing Editor Amy Jacques interviewed Melissa Kleinschmidt, APR, for this month’s member profile.

Getting to Know Melissa Kleinschmidt, APR

Favorite movie or TV show?
“The Sixties” miniseries on CNN

Any three dinner guests, past or present?
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Eleanor Roosevelt and Meryl Streep

Who’s your favorite athlete or sports team?
I always root for the underdog.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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