Live from South Korea: Olympic PR Pros Share Tips on Winning Big as a Communications Professional

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Published on April 6, 2018, at 3:27 p.m.
by Anna Gazdik.

If you would’ve told Kristen Gowdy two years ago that she would find herself in South Korea for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the then-college senior would’ve called you crazy. She didn’t know the first thing about winter sports, and she certainly wasn’t aiming on attending any kind of Olympic event.

Photo courtesy of Kristen Gowdy

And yet Gowdy stood among thousands at the PyeongChang Olympic opening ceremonies on Feb. 9. Gowdy isn’t an Olympic athlete, nor is she a devoted spectator. She is, however, a public relations professional representing Team USA.

Gowdy graduated with a degree in journalism just two years ago and has found herself traveling the world as a media and marketing assistant for USA Bobsled and Skeleton ever since. Gowdy isn’t the only one to land a job with Team USA straight out of college. Mimi McKinnis, communications manager for U.S. Figure Skating, was hired just after graduating with a public relations degree.

The two represent dozens of communications professionals on Team USA, and they shine through press releases and media reports rather than record-breaking runs and fine-tuned skating techniques. While on site in South Korea, Gowdy and McKinnis shared their Olympic experiences and offered tips on finding professional success.

A day in the life

Photo courtesy of Mimi McKinnis

Day to day, McKinnis fulfills several roles: She works as the assistant editor of SKATING Magazine, leads print publications for media and manages communications campaigns for U.S. Figure Skating. However, the Olympic Games bring on a whole new schedule. In the past year, McKinnis has juggled unending press releases and news conferences. She even coordinated a live “Today Show” segment for the women’s Olympic nominations.

The games themselves are fast-paced, especially when Team USA athletes take center stage.

“There’s always a curtain that separates what the public sees from what goes on behind the scenes. I’m usually right on the other side of that curtain,” McKinnis said. “I check in with all the broadcast pens and print journalists to form a plan. Once the scores come up, I head back to the curtain to meet the skaters. It’s actually an interesting place to be … always around but never seen, and typically one of the first people the athletes see after they compete. I let them know the plan, and then handle the media if the athletes need some time to compose themselves, whether it’s through good or disappointing circumstances. I also listen in to interviews and step in if I need to move things along or change a topic.”

Like McKinnis, Gowdy works with the athletes after their runs and manages media requests while putting out press releases. In the years around the Olympic Games, she spends time writing features and pitching to the media to grow awareness for bobsled and skeleton — two sports that Gowdy wants to bring more attention to in the U.S. Bobsled, perhaps best known in conjunction with the historic 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, features two or four teammates maneuvering down an icy course. Skeleton heightens the stakes, as single athletes travel down the icy course head-first on a single sled.

“It’s extremely important to market our team and put our best foot forward in the public eye. It aids funding, grows our fanbase and gets people excited about watching sports,” Gowdy said.

Say yes
As hard as it is to believe, Mckinnis and Gowdy once sat where all PR students sit today and dreamed of someday working in the professional field. The two credit internships and opportunities to their success in their current positions.

Photo courtesy of Kristen Gowdy

Gowdy jumped at a chance to study abroad in Germany and Austria as a college student. While on the trip, Gowdy attended a bobsled and skeleton World Cup event and became fascinated with the sport. After returning to the U.S., she started freelancing for USA Bobsled and Skeleton by writing profile pieces on athletes for about a year. Three months after graduation, Gowdy was offered a full-time position.

“I encourage everyone to live anywhere you can over the summer. Just go anywhere! I went where I needed to go to get experience. Just take any chances, because anything can turn into anything,” said Gowdy.

Gowdy ventured far from her home in Santa Barbara, California, to go to school in New York, and then to accept internships in various states.

“My internships gave me such great experience, and I was able to jump right in and have the confidence to go into a job where I have a lot of freedom and independence. [My three internships during college] were the biggest things for me,” said Gowdy.

McKinnis gave similar advice. The 2012 Madonna University graduate saw a communications internship on U.S. Figure Skating’s website and immediately took the opportunity to apply.

“I signed on for a one-year internship in 2012, and they’ve yet to get rid of me,” McKinnis said.

Develop skills for success
Not quick to forget the work it took to get to where they are, McKinnis and Gowdy are ready to help PR professionals of the future achieve their own professional dreams. McKinnis has three pieces of advice for current students: Learn how to speak well, write well and stay calm.

“In sports and in communications, even the best-laid plans can go out the window in a matter of seconds depending on a performance, a question or a tweet. Adding to the noise only fuels the fires, so being able to stay level-headed and professional through anything is an asset to your team and your athletes,” McKinnis said.

Gowdy concurred. The media and marketing specialist has a strong writing base but also had to teach herself graphic design.

“Most students in communications should have the writing skills. That is obviously important. I am our only content producer, so I do video and photos and had to teach myself how to do graphic design. Just be as well-rounded as possible, but definitely learn how to do video and graphic design.”

McKinnis and Gowdy are proof that winning big isn’t impossible — it just takes hard work and hustle.

“Meet and impress as many people as you can,” McKinnis advised. “Learn to rock professional clothing, speak clearly and sit up straight. You never know who’s watching or where those connections will take you.”

If there’s a gold standard for public relations work, it might be seen at the Olympic Games. With worldwide attention and constant media coverage, there’s no room for mistakes. McKinnis and Gowdy, both fairly recent graduates, made it to the big stage by taking chances and learning every skill they could to be good at what they do.

Photo courtesy of Mimi McKinnis

The takeaway? Dream big, say yes and work hard — you might just end up winning PR gold.

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