An Important Lesson From College Football on Managing Your Public Relations Career

Bill Zucker

As a Wisconsin Badger alum and a huge fan of the football team, I took special note of the recent news that head coach Bret Bielema quit his job to take the same role at Arkansas. As a fan, I was sad to see a successful coach leave. But as a “boss” I was upset at how he did it. And I think there is a lesson here for anyone trying to grow their public relations career.

Coach Bielema’s boss was athletic director Barry Alvarez, the team’s coach himself until he saw something special in his new assistant. He mentored Bielema and ultimately gave him his big career break – his first head coaching job. Many thought Bielema didn’t have enough experience but Alvarez took a chance on him and was right. Without a doubt, Bielema owes his career and his success to Alvarez.

So does loyalty mean he should never leave? Of course not. Whether it’s a football coach or a PR professional, we have careers, ambitions and families to think about. But how you leave says a lot. According to Alvarez, the man he mentored blindsided him by sealing the deal and then sitting down to talk about it for the first time. “I said, you’re not telling me you’re going to visit with the Arkansas people. You’ve already taken the job.”

In football, the etiquette used to involve a team asking permission to interview a coach. In public relations, that is not practical. But I do believe in our industry, it is appropriate and appreciated to consult a trusted supervisor before formally accepting a job somewhere else. As a supervisor myself, I have appreciated and respected when an employee comes to let me know they have job offer. Sometimes I have used the opportunity to convince them to stay, other times I have helped them with advice on their new employer. But I have always felt better in the end if it started with an employee saying “I received an intriguing job offer and I wanted to talk with you about it.”

If you come to your boss, as Bielema did, saying “I have taken another job,” there is not much left to talk about. Perhaps that is appropriate if you really dislike your boss or your company. But if you hope to maintain a relationship or work with that person or company again, leaving room for dialogue is imperative.   

So how do you go about this if you are pretty sure you want to leave? My advice is:

  1. After receiving a formal offer from a prospective employer, let them know you are excited about the opportunity but would like to discuss it with family and trusted advisors.
  2. Go to a trusted supervisor and tell them you have a great career opportunity and you want their advice. Let them offer career counsel and have a robust discussion. When you are finished, let them know you will keep them apprised of your final decision but regardless, you valued this conversation.
  3. If you still want the new job, go back and either accept the offer or negotiate your acceptance.
  4. When acceptance is complete, go back to your supervisor and give them formal notice.

In my experience the end result is more satisfying for all parties. For me, as a supervisor I feel good about the person I mentored and much more likely to continue that relationship in the future.

As for Bielema, he asked his boss if he could still coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl before leaving. It’s no surprise that Alvarez said no and will coach the game himself. Good luck in Arkansas Bret. On Wisconsin!

Bill Zucker is a Partner and Midwest Director for Ketchum and holds a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  This guest post also appears in today’s KetchumBlog

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