Thought Leadership

ICON 2023 Q&A: ESPN’s Amanda Brooks on Finding the Human Element in Stories

Amanda Brooks
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Over the next few weeks, PRsay will post Q&As with several of the thought leaders who spoke at PRSSA’s ICON 2023 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.

It’s a Saturday in October, and Amanda Brooks in not at a college football game. Brooks, director of communications at ESPN, had to think for a moment about how many years it’s been since she had a fall Saturday off work. (She was going to spend the rest of this day with her sister, and their itinerary included watching some college football — from the comfort of a couch.)

In her role for ESPN College Football & College Networks, Brooks leads day-to-day PR strategy for ESPN’s college football portfolio, including ABC Saturday Night Football and the College Football Playoff. After delivering the PRSSA Keynote on Oct. 14, Brooks talked with PRsay about her career path and offered advice for students and new pros interested in a career in sports-related communications.

Both of your parents were college professors, a career path that you also considered for yourself. What inspired you to pursue a communications career related to athletics instead?

I saw my parents doing something they loved, with education. I realized the importance of being passionate about what you do. I was incredibly passionate about sports. I was a college athlete. When I was playing, I remember looking around and wondering, “What can I actually do as a career in sports?” Because all I saw were coaches, athletic directors, personal and physical trainers, and therapists. I didn’t want to be a coach or an [athletic director], so I wasn’t sure what was out there for me. I was like, “I shouldn’t be in the medical field, because I’m terrible at science and math.”

And so I kept asking questions and shadowing people around the athletic department, to know what was out there. A few weeks after I started grad school, I [discovered the option of] working in sports comms. It’s now been over 15 years. But that initial thing was just me being curious about what’s out there.

Ethics are the cornerstone of PRSA and the PR profession. You have a master’s degree in ethics from Vanderbilt University. Why did you decide to pursue this?

At Vanderbilt, I had already started working in sports. There’s not a PR school at Vanderbilt and I’ve never taken a communications or PR class or read a book. I still haven’t.

What was really important to me was, “What can I study that will serve me no matter what field I work in?” And to me, it was ethics.

Over the years, I’ve talked with many PR students who were interested in sports-comms careers. However, the field is not all glamour and hanging out with, say Breanna Stewart or Patrick Mahomes. What advice do you have for students and new professionals about being realistic in sports communications?

Understanding that you don’t have to be an athlete to work in sports is the first thing. I always tell students to be curious and ask questions. Also, make yourself invaluable. Raise your hand and volunteer. Give yourself the opportunity to do things that you’re not comfortable with or that you might not know a lot about. Try something new that maybe you’re not familiar with.

Get your hands dirty. Don’t be afraid to take chances. It’s OK to fail. Those things are going to set you up for success in sports.

When I first started at ESPN, I thought I knew sports television because I had worked with television networks as a PR person for years. I had no idea. So during my first six months, I shadowed producers, directors, audio techs and camera people to understand how we tell stories.

ESPN goes beyond scores and stats and tells stories. For you, what makes a story compelling?

Finding the human element is something that ESPN does tremendously. Storytelling is at the heart of who we are, whether it’s College GameDay or PR or internal communications. It’s about the people.

My favorite thing about working at ESPN is the people. They are passionate about what they do. And I think that’s really important when you work in PR: the trust and integrity that it takes to do this job. But the storytelling aspect of what ESPN does — and how it can relate to PR — is finding that human element, finding a way to connect to whoever your consumer group or stakeholders are, to make that connection. Because that is how the story resonates.

Here, Brooks talks about the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance — especially during football season:

John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director and editor-in-chief of its award-winning publication, Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.

[Photo credit: jim cowsert/grapevine photo]

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John Elsasser

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