“Haters gonna hate.” Similarly, “you can’t please everyone.” This perspective can be really hard for someone who chooses PR for a living and also represents another human being as their profession. Your duty is to build and protect a brand for someone else, and so you want absolutely everyone to LOVE what you are doing. You just have to accept that not everyone will. It’s a process, this acceptance. This morning I launched a purpose-driven campaign for a client, and he had to remind me of this exact sentiment. Not everyone is going to love everything you do, and you can’t please every single person. But if you do a good job, staying true to yourself and to your client, you cannot go wrong.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Otto.
Rebecca Otto advances PR and marketing for professional athletes, and strives to paint a world where her athlete clients are heard and seen — to create real change. Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” — and ironically these words ring true more often than not in the sports industry. Complacent and content don’t exist in Rebecca’s dictionary, proven by industry-leading work in her field.
Her proven performance goes back 15 years, building an expansive network of media and marketing contacts and earning a reputation as one of the best publicists and reps in the game. She guides each client with their off-the-field goals and develops a strategic plan to help achieve them as individuals. She has booked clients for countless national media opportunities, and has also helped clients create foundations, pursue social justice initiatives, as well as develop branded and original content.
Rebecca works across all divisions at global sports and entertainment marketing agency Wasserman, managing media and content development for clients in every sport. In the past, she handled the PR and content marketing for Wasserman’s NFL division for over 100 NFL clients including Super Bowl champion and 3x Pro Bowler Michael Bennett, 2x Super Bowl champion and 3x Pro Bowler Malcolm Jenkins, and Dallas Cowboys star linebacker Jaylon Smith. She was responsible for projects such as Marshawn Lynch’s “No Script”, Warner Brothers and HBO Max’s adaptation of Michael Bennett’s New York Times best-selling book “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable”, Bennett’s podcast with Westwood One, “Mouthpeace,” and most recently NFL client Cam Jordan’s podcast with The Players Tribune sponsored by Pepsi.
Beyond media procurement, Rebecca also generates revenue through branded and original content with various networks, brands and platforms. She has collaborated with her clients on charitable programs and initiatives such as Jaylon Smith’s Minority Entrepreneurship Institute, Cam Jordan and Crescent City Corps, and Athletes for Impact.
She’s disrupted the sports industry since 2006 — as an eager go-getter out of the University of Texas — because she’s never been afraid to demand what is necessary, speak the truth, and unabashedly hold clients, herself and others to a higher standard.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Well, I’m from small town Texas, where Football is King. I grew up with both of my older brothers playing college ball and movies like Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights being filmed at our high school. It was impossible not to love sports, let alone football.
I declared public relations as my path right out of high school, imagining it was a career full of “schmoozing and entertaining” which isn’t exactly wrong, but that certainly didn’t account for all of the WRITING! Thankfully I ended up loving it and while attending the University of Texas at Austin, I accumulated eight internships before I landed my first “job” with the Cleveland Browns. I packed up my car and drove across the country two weeks after I walked across the graduation stage and never looked back! Over the next 15 years I would move to Florida, North Carolina, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and then back to Austin. Ultimately though, what led me down this career path to where I am today is flexibility, determination, and the desire to excel at my craft. I genuinely enjoy public relations and content development, and it doesn’t hurt that I love sports.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Public relations can become mundane. It’s easy to get complacent if you are not motivated. This is important. Disruption is vital to doing it right.
I always say to younger professionals that the key to PR is creativity, and that may seem obvious — but boy, is that not always easy. Disruptors must always push themselves to continue to find ways to expand and build upon opportunities for their clients, and that is how I feel I have been disrupting the sports PR space for the last several years. It can be easy to do a good job by providing effective results, but it can be difficult to seek out challenges within emerging opportunities that have yet to exist.
For example, several years ago I developed and negotiated the first athlete content series for Bleacher Report and Facebook. It was exciting, it was scary. There were things that did not go well, and there were things that went really well. I learned a ton from that experience. It was around that time I had already started this transition: seeking out content opportunities vs traditional media opportunities for our clients. The innovation felt exciting yet risky, and there have been so many more since then. It’s fun being “the first” but it is also can feel terrifying.
When I managed a client’s book deal and optioned that book centered around social justice, it was 2018 — not today in 2020 — when just two years later everyone is now leaning in. This was a time when athlete sponsors had abandoned anyone speaking out, fans were completely split, leagues were unsupportive, and players were torn. So, for its boldness, this deal was huge. TV bookings, speaking tours, and everything that came after was thrilling but challenging. Seeing the easy success of similar efforts this summer, you know that your clients helped lay the groundwork, and you prepare for the projects that are in the pipeline. Because being two steps ahead is part of the game.
The overarching element is to let the exciting tension of risk and reward take you forward.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Some mistakes are less “ha ha funny” and more, “Well, funny how THAT turned out,” and mine is more the latter. I was very naïve early on and got my Super Bowl of wake-up calls during the Super Bowl.
I will never forget Super Bowl XLI — though I might like to — and I did NOT know the lows to which the haters would stoop. I was 26 years young and living my best life; the only problem was that others noticed, and weren’t thrilled. Sometimes when others don’t have what you’ve built, they’d rather take yours than build their own, and I misunderstood how that could play out. I remember to this day a publicist competing to get my client’s business that weekend, and how they attempted to diminish my work and character in front of my client. To be honest, there were a few times in the earlier part of my career of dodging and deflecting attacks on my character from folks I had trusted and worked with. I guess the mistake was, ironically, misreading THEIR character.
Thankfully, I had built a level of trust within my network that those types of attacks were baseless. But I had to learn that first and foremost what matters most is the integrity of my work, and then second, the integrity of my relationships. And things are going just fine.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
As I mentioned, right after college I packed up my car and drove to Cleveland where I started working for the Browns. I was a fish out of water. I had no friends. I was living in a hotel and I certainly didn’t have any winter clothes or know how to scrape the snow off my car. It was a new world, and I was so far away from home.
My boss, Beth Malafa, became my person. She was smart, funny, caring and extremely good at her job (and still is!). I learned so much from her in those eight months. It wasn’t the easiest experience, but that’s specifically why I always tell people that I learned so much from it. And what I remember most, still to this day: I learned, from observing Beth, how to be a hard worker and ultimately how to be a good boss.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The benchmark for when disruption is positive versus when it’s not so great, is: are you being true to your purpose and your contribution to supporting the purpose of other people? Disruption is meaningful and it works when it outwardly reflects your internal intentions — regardless of inevitable hitches, haters and hassles. When you’re disrupting simply to manage external factors and perceptions, without an internal compass, there’s no purpose to the push.
When I’ve worked to disrupt, it’s been intended and designed to elevate purpose. This may seem basic, but over a decade ago — well before it was commonplace — I started seeking out PR opportunities beyond the basic sports interview for our sports clients. This approach helped me break new ground and went beyond the scope of work that the majority of my peers delivered until even five years ago; some professionals still deliver the standard sports PR tactics and value for their sports clients. When I began working with sports media, I would consistently push for mutually beneficial opportunities based on athletes’ interests and passions, versus their performance, which led me to branching out to media beyond their sport. Obviously, there was a domino effect, and it’s specifically heightened my ability to deliver firsts within the sphere of the NFL.
All of this comes back to creativity, pushing the envelope, thinking ahead and finding opportunities before they exist. I’ve seen peers push for bigger and safely modified versions of outdated opportunities, and it’s halfhearted because it’s tactical thinking. If you disrupt with purpose — and my purpose was to elevate the full scope of my talent’s human story — you can create new opportunities.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. “We’re not curing cancer.” This is what Doug Hendrickson — super agent and Executive Vice President of Wasserman Football — has always told me in high stress situations that need some diffusing. In PR especially, things get tense. Events, shoots, campaigns, releases, etc. It can get HOT. So, when I would get stressed, Doug would swoop in to remind me: “Rebecca, come on, we aren’t curing cancer here. Let’s all take a breath and calm down.” It seemed to do the trick… most of the time.
2. “Haters gonna hate.” Similarly, “you can’t please everyone.” This perspective can be really hard for someone who chooses PR for a living and also represents another human being as their profession. Your duty is to build and protect a brand for someone else, and so you want absolutely everyone to LOVE what you are doing. You just have to accept that not everyone will. It’s a process, this acceptance. This morning I launched a purpose-driven campaign for a client, and he had to remind me of this exact sentiment. Not everyone is going to love everything you do, and you can’t please every single person. But if you do a good job, staying true to yourself and to your client, you cannot go wrong.
3. “Control issues much?” Earlier on in my career, I wanted everything to be perfect. Everyone needed to be on time; the interview had to happen exactly as planned and scheduled; and events should have no hitches. But when working with athletes, you quickly realize this is a recipe for disaster — or at least early-onset heart disease. I remember fighting the hitches so hard, not willing to give up control. Once I finally did (obviously not completely), the ease allowed for better relationships all around, especially with my clients who are ultimately the most important. I guess the words of summary there are: “Let it go.”
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Well, it’s an exciting time, and in the active pursuit of creativity, I aim to make it more exciting.
Working with athletes across all sports allows me to help develop different stories and focus on presenting them with the very best opportunities. I like to call this matchmaking: pairing them with either the top media partner or brand that makes sense for them and developing a strong concept or campaign. So many unique stories are waiting to be told, with just as many audiences waiting to hear them. So, moving forward, I specifically aim to focus on impact marketing and content, because we have a deep roster of clients with passion points that align in this space.
Beyond that, I am honored to support my clients breaking new ground by building out personal platforms and causes within the social justice space — despite a hostile environment. Specifically, in the NFL, there were only a handful of my peers navigating these waters and we worked to forge the way for others as well as create meaningful campaigns, programs and content. This year alone I will be representing five Walter Payton Man of the Year nominees. I believe this is a testament to the type of work we deliver as a team, and my focus toward impact marketing, content and broader human stories. All of this is in the support of empowered and justice-driven athletes speaking out for change.
An overall disruptive focus allows me to pitch ideas that might lend themselves to brands who are leaning into this type of content and/or messaging right now and looking to partner with an athlete who represents the same core values. This position is, again, something that I have been inching closer and closer to — pairing all of my experiences and skillsets together.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
How much time do you have? Just kidding, but not really. In sports, the challenges are definitely ever-present. I think they vary, from misogyny to actual sex discrimination, and everything in between. It is imperative that women speak up for what they deserve, ask for transparency, push back on bias, assert their opinion, stand their ground and above all else demonstrate confidence. I can admit I still struggle with confidence even though I know I am a b-a-d-a-s-s. It’s something I have to work at every day. Despite my or other women’s accomplishments, expertise, skillsets, productivity, and pure success, a man can and will receive that promotion, earn more money and most certainly receive higher praise. This imbalance has taken place my entire career. The more we’re heard, the more we achieve balance.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would try to develop a movement centered around a concept with broad appeal but personal implications. I think I’d empower people to simply let their heart lead. We seldom teach kindness. We seldom teach passion. We say “You do you,” but not everyone knows how because we don’t teach self-awareness.
Go ahead and like that post on social media. Share good news. Send a note of gratitude and thank someone for sharing or caring. I think we hold back on what can be second nature, versus giving in to that desire to connect because of fear of rejection. And I would love to see a movement of likes. I’d love the giving and accepting of compliments to become the trend it needs to be. You never know what could happen. Behaviors bringing our best intentions to life can unlock all the possibilities in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Do you remember that song, “I Hope You Dance,” by Lee Ann Womack? When I charged off to Cleveland following my dreams, Mom burned me a CD to take with me. (Remember those?!) The gift makes me tear up to recall, honestly because it was filled with inspirational songs about my future and what she hoped for me. She knew there were greater things ahead for me and it was her greatest wish for me to seize every opportunity. “I Hope You Dance” was and still is such a beautiful representation for women of all ages tackling new challenges, seeking out new adventures, and taking on the world. I hope we all dance!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!