Kathleen Hessert’s trackball on her Blackberry isn’t working. Her expression says it all.
As the CEO of Sports Media Challenge, Hessert is known by many as “the woman who launched Shaq on Twitter,” so the device is attended to immediately. After all, a technology glitch like this is akin to Michael Jordan going on court with a broken shoelace.
While Twitter is relatively new on the sports media scene—Hessert isn’t. She and her company, Sports Media Challenge have a long and distinguished history in communications consulting for some of the biggest names in sports and corporate America. Her developing status as one of the most sought-after names in the social media arena just happens to be her most recent passion and claim to fame.
In mid-July, while the sports pages were hyperventilating over whether Lebron James would sign with the Knicks or the Miami Heat, Hessert and her team were flitting around the office, nimble as grasshoppers. By 10:30 a.m. on the day of his announcement, her team had researched and analyzed the media buzz, strategized several applications of social media engagement, pitched the ideas to ESPN, written a blog post, set up hash tags and planned data aggregation for editorial fodder the following day.
As evidenced by the organized tornado of information and activity—Hessert is THE go-to-gal for all things media and sports.
So how does one become the personal advisor to champions like Peyton and Eli Manning, Dan Jansen, Shaquille O’Neal, Irish new Head Coach Brian Kelly and Derek Jeter?
If Hessert is any indication, the formula is a deft combination of talent, smarts and chutzpah.
A Champion in Training
Hessert’s early career included living in New York as an award-winning journalist, television anchor and talk show host before she and her husband Tim decided to start a family and a new business in Lancaster, S.C. After three years being a full-time mom, she got the itch to get back into the media game.
“I was a great mom and a lousy housewife—I needed another outlet,” laughs Hessert.
So in 1985, Hessert launched Hessert Concepts in Communication, a business model that she figured would keep her occupied a few hours a week.
“I used everything I knew under the umbrella of communications, image and brand issues to help executives with presentation, crisis communications and overall communications strategies. I had no idea how quickly it would take off,” she admits.
The first year Hessert’s new company boasted 34 clients. The second year vaulted to 102. By 1988, Hessert was swamped with 134 clients—an accomplishment she attributes largely to one name: billionaire textile magnate and education advocate, Roger Milliken.
“Mr. Milliken allowed me to use all my new ideas with his team—crisis management, full scale emergency drills, crafting his acceptance speech for the Malcolm Baldrige award, and developing a clear message around quality and education. Roger told his partners and clients about our work together—and since then, most everything I have done has been repeat and referral,” explains Hessert.
After focusing largely on major corporate initiatives, including the communications strategy for what was almost a $4 billion merger between KPMG and Ernst and Young—Hessert hit another milestone in her career. Her brother, championship racecar driver Tom Hessert, won the Daytona 24-Hour Championship and seriously flubbed his post race interview.
“It was horrible. But it’s just not natural to climb out of a race car and articulate what’s happening in a way that will draw fans to you. That’s when I realized that everything I was doing in the corporate sphere had even more immediacy and value for people in sports organizations,” says Hessert.
Hessert accelerated her plans in 1991, when her son, in middle school at the time, called her with the news that Magic Johnson was HIV positive. “He was so shaken by it—I knew it was time to introduce crisis management in the sports marketplace.”
Her first sports client was none other than Notre Dame University, and the first week of her engagement included coaching the team on how to talk to the media about the college’s history-making contract with NBC to televise its games. From there, she landed a contract with the National Football League (NFL) to author a series called “Winning the Media Game—a Guide for NFL Players” and recorded a version of it with announcer Pat Summerall.
A Milliken connection precipitated her work with Olympic champion Dan Jansen. “Dan needed to redirect his image from the heartbreak kid back to the best-in-the-world performances he was giving on the ice. We worked together on his media strategy, his story and his public speaking and I was there to see him win his gold medal in Norway.”
Hessert describes the essence of her work as “building communications champions,” and says her skills and experience as a reporter lie at the core of her success. “Whether you are a C-level executive or a professional athlete, there is a special kind of thinking needed to clearly articulate your message in the heat of the moment. We help our clients to give unique, insightful answers with the potential to captivate the hearts and minds of the public.”
A Pro’s Playbook
But the success of Sports Media Challenge isn’t just skill and serendipity. It has also taken considerable vision, execution and guts.
To win the NFL contract, Hessert penned a letter to the NFL Commissioner during a controversy regarding a female reporter in the Patriots locker room, telling him bluntly, “You guys need me.” NFL PR executive Greg Aiello called her the following week.
When she had an idea about live video streaming for troops in the Gulf, she looked up the number for White House information, told the switchboard operator what she wanted, and ended up talking to Karl Rove about scheduling the President to participate. The event was green-lighted—although derailed by last minute security concerns.
Comments Hessert, “A lot of people think too small. They are afraid to ask for things or fear how it might make them look. I don’t think twice about it—life’s too short.”
Her ability to see connections, anticipate the future, and fearlessly act into it is also what makes Hessert a social media phenom. While launching celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal and golf star Natalie Gulbis on Twitter has won her a cult following, Sports Media Challenge has also pioneered an intelligence gathering and analytical tool that gives the firm’s clients a distinct advantage.
In 2004, Hessert and Chief Technology Consultant Joshua Baer developed a proprietary software called BuzzManager. The tool aggregates data from various online conversations including Facebook, Twitter, blog posts and comments, YouTube—and countless other discussion pockets in the ethersphere.
The tool has become an integral part of the firm’s brand management process, allowing them to do large scale social media audits to help organizations discover the best ways to launch and/or manage their brand presence on the Internet.
“There are a lot of large organizations that know they need to get into social media—but don’t have any idea how to do it. We help them get the right information to clarify their purpose and determine a game plan,” says Hessert.
Initially BuzzMgr was used only by Sports Media Challenge consultants to provide comprehensive analysis and information management. A recent upgrade in the platform provides clients a tiered selection of services: full-service which includes aggregation, analysis and consultation; a mid-range package that includes aggregation and analysis; or a fully-automated service where a company can purchase the software license programmed for its concern and manage it in-house.
Hessert says that BuzzMgr has created an ability to collect incredible amounts of business intelligence in real time. What is also clear is that this information has given Hessert more ideas than ever to connect people.
This past April, she worked with Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly to raise the exposure of the university’s engineering program by engaging online fans of the legendary football team. They launched a blog for the Notre Dame Robotics Football Competition, created a huge global online fan base and doubled the physical attendance to the competition from its prior year.
When Coach Kelly moved from Cleveland to Notre Dame, Hessert’s BuzzMgr program discovered disgruntled fans were making online threats to Kelly’s family. After Hessert passed the information along to Kelly, he reported the threats to police. As a result, Hessert has also been approached regarding the use of BuzzMgr as a preventative approach to policing, a virtual patrolman of sorts.
Hessert is also preparing to launch a DirectTV endeavor called” The Back Nine Network” in the first Quarter of 2011. Says Hessert, “It will be the first network of its kind—designed to include fan engagement using social media from beginning to end.”
The Winning Goal
Regardless of the project, Hessert educates her clients using real-time current events, and she practices what she preaches. Her Twitter handle, @kathleenhessert, offers a virtual experience of who she is, what she thinks, and the value her firm has to offer.
“I tell my clients that their tweets should be 1/3 about their specific business, 1/3 delivering valuable information about their industry as a whole, and 1/3 personal commentary. People connect with other people—they want to know there is a personality behind the brand,” coaches Hessert.
While Hessert has played many seasons in what has traditionally been a man’s game, she manages to squeeze strength, expertise and a feminine voice into her 140-character posts. In 24 hours, she will post about the latest breaking sports story: “Want to see what the @kingjames factor will be in social media 2night? BuzzMgr will have results tomorrow”…will fearlessly share her expert opinion: “Wish kids of the B&G Club benefiting from #The Decision #sponsorship were part of the show. Where was fan engagement other than 1 fan” and give shout-outs to her big league clients: “@natalie_gulbis Hey Nat keep it going this wknd! Glad to see you’re making the Open work for you. #NG.”
This summer Hessert’s online voice is also championing The Foundation for Tomorrow (@TFFTAfrica), a Charlotte and Tanzania-based non-profit founded by her daughter Meghann for the support and education of African orphans. The culmination of two years worth of strategizing and planning was unfurled in a July fundraiser that featured a 400-mile bike ride from Mount Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean.
Hessert, Meghann and their ‘street team’ gave real-time accounts covering the team’s adventure, posting blogs, and of course, tweeting live coverage of the journey. A sponsor also provided an unmanned drone to capture video coverage via satellite.
Says Hessert, “In addition to sharing the power and influence of social media in sports, entertainment and brand-building, philanthropy is a huge focus of mine. It is important to me to leverage the power of social media to connect and empower people.”
Once the Tanzania ride is completed and capsulated in her blogs and tweets, Hessert will return to a limitless array of possibilities. So the inevitable question is—what is her ‘Next Big Thing’?
The self-professed Notre Dame fanatic doesn’t hesitate to answer, “Football—of course!”