Guarding the gridiron: Carl Francis on communicating for the NFL Players Association

August 1, 2012

Carl Francis has loved football since he began playing at age seven in Hampton Roads, Va. “As a football player from the youth level through high school and then into college, I have always been a fan of the NFL,” says Francis, who is the director of communications for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

He attended Virginia Union University in Richmond and started his career in public relations with the Washington Redskins. “It was a great first job in the field as it allowed me to experience public relations in a fast-paced environment,” he says of the experience.

Francis has been with the NFLPA since 1994. The association, established in 1956, is the labor organization for professional football players in the NFL and is responsible for representing players in all matters concerning wages, hours and working conditions; protecting players’ rights as pro athletes; and ensuring that others meet collective bargaining agreement terms. The NFLPA also negotiates and monitors retirement and insurance benefits, provides assistance to charitable and community organizations, and enhances and defends the image of players and their profession.

The 2012 NFL season begins on Sept. 5, 2012, with the defending Super Bowl champions, the New  York Giants hosting the Dallas Cowboys.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis — in the off-season and during the season?

My day begins with reviewing media sweeps from across the country discussing issues involving the NFLPA. If there is an issue that involves a player or our organization, we monitor the media closely throughout the day.

We also work with various departments in our organization by helping them strategically plan media objectives for programs or initiatives they may be working on. During the NFL off-season, we coordinate a lot of events and programs for our players, so we’re usually busy creating strategic media outreach plans.

During the season, we visit with our members and discuss all related NFLPA issues. We also publish a membership guide and a magazine with information to assist them with any questions they may have throughout the year.

You’ve been with the NFLPA since 1994. How have you seen your role and the organization change through the years?

My role at the NFLPA has expanded dramatically since I began in 1994. At that time, we were a much smaller organization; therefore, I was more responsible for our overall messaging and managing our direct relationship with the media.

Today, I have a more active role with our licensing and marketing subsidiary, website, social media platforms, publications and all video-related projects. 

The organization has grown due to the industry model changing for our players. We have expanded our outreach to include more programs that support our players before, during and after their playing careers. 

How has the media landscape changed in terms of coverage? How do you determine credible sources (with fan sites) and what type of access they get?

The media landscape has changed drastically due to the increased popularity of our game. Our game has resonated with the fans because of the greater access and visibility of our players.

Professional football has become a year-round sport due to free agency, the NFL draft, off-season workouts and team mini camps. The advent of bloggers covering the NFL means that anyone can have a voice. There are so many sports-centric websites that it becomes challenging to stay abreast of everyone who is covering the NFL. 

As an association, how do you decide what to address?

We address any issue that compromises the rights of our members in the areas of working conditions, wages and hours of employment. Many times, players will contact us with issues to resolve on their behalf, but it’s our inherent responsibility to advance the interest of all our members.

What were your roles and responsibilities during the 2011 NFL lockout?

During the lockout, we crafted a strategic communications plan to streamline our messaging to players, media members and the general public/fans.

We held weekly conference calls with the media, our players and others engaged with our business. It was important that we facilitate talking points and key messaging highlights so players could act as individual spokesmen during negotiations. We knew players were our biggest voice, so we kept them abreast of message points on a daily and weekly basis.

What were the challenges of explaining bargaining agreement information to a mass audience and helping people understand the lockout?

It was challenging because we understood that the average fan didn’t care why players were locked out; they just wanted to know when they were going to play football.

We are in an industry where the average fan is dealing with their personal financial struggles in our economy, so to explain why we should receive a fair share of the league’s $9 billion in revenue was difficult. But we had to negotiate an agreement that was fair to our membership.

How do the challenges that you faced during the lockout affect your organization today?

The biggest challenge now is to maintain the momentum we established during the lockout by crafting messages and engaging with the media to effectively assist them with covering our business fairly and accurately. Sometimes we say that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”

Is it difficult to fight people’s general misperceptions of professional athletes?

Yes, because professional athletes are held to such high standards publicly. High school football players now are featured on front covers of national publications on signing day.

Professional athletes live in a fishbowl, and everyone wants to know their every move.The majority of NFL players are genuinely good men who work hard at becoming productive citizens. They are overshadowed by the small percentage of players who struggle with making good decisions.

How is the NFLPA using social media?

We are using social media to promote our events, engage with players and send messages to the media. It has become our most effective set of tools. 

In this 140-character world, with a 24/7 news cycle, how do you best get the message out?

We usually craft short messages and send a link of the story or release via Twitter and/or Facebook.  Also, many of our players retweet or share our press releases on Facebook. This helps us maximize our outreach to fans, media and our membership.

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

The increased ability to measure public relations in today’s business. There are so many communication tools available for everyone to deliver their message that I believe measuring the effectiveness of each tool is going to be important. 

Getting to Know Carl Francis

What’s the best thing about living in Washington, D.C.?
     Knowing that you live in the eye of the world — everyone wants to know what is happening in Washington, D.C.

Who’s your favorite athlete?
    All the athletes from my hometown of  Hampton Roads,  Va.

What’s your favorite thing to do in your leisure time?
    I enjoy reading and jogging.

If you could have any three dinner guests — past or present — who would they be?
    Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad  Ali and Marlon Brando

Managing Editor Amy Jacques interviewed Carl Francis for this month’s member profile.

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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