Below is a profile of Rick French I wrote for PRSA Strategies & Tactics. You can find the published profile PRSA ran HERE. I wrote it in February before the sports world was brought to its knees by coronavirus.
I wanted to run the full version here, with the explanation that it’s meant to be targeted to young PR pros and to bring light to the strategies French used to push back against a very political Major League Baseball. And it was meant to be a jumping point into the baseball season. Such is life!
Just northwest of San Antonio is a town of about 3,000 called Comfort, Texas. Founded by German immigrants in 1854, it’s the last place where you’d center a national marketing campaign for a major clothing brand. Rick French and his French/West/Vaughan (FWV) team made that happen, and the founder of the award-winning, Raleigh-based communications firm has taken his passion for sports and made it a staple of his offerings.
The Comfort, Texas, campaign garnered national attention for Wrangler Jeans when Comfort named New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees as mayor for a day and had Wrangler clothe everyone in the small town. That Wrangler work holds a special place in the FWV playbook, alongside various marketing pushes it has done for the brand with the likes of Brett Favre, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Nolan Ryan, rodeo star Ty Murray among others.
Spring is upon us, and as the coronavirus has paralyzed the sports world, we’ve been deprived of the crack of baseball bats and popping of gloves in the air. French knows a little something about baseball too. He’s a co-owner of a minor league baseball team, the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He bought the club with two partners in 2015, and since then the club has won awards in minor league baseball for attendance, promotions and its creative theme nights.
“There’s such excitement in early April when the minor league baseball season starts,” French said. “Spring is in the air. I typically come to Daytona a couple days before the first game and host a media luncheon and introduce our players to the media. We also host a sponsor appreciation event. It feels like spring and it’s a rite of passage. It’s fun to be there and thank people for making it successful.”
As the team’s owner, French goes down to Daytona Beach 5-6 times per season. As the season starts this month, he’ll make the TV and radio rounds in his local market and “try to be visible for fans and supporters.” As French’s sixth season owning the pro baseball team gets underway, conversations on his media tour may be different.
Never has French’s love for baseball been more evident than this offseason, when he’s had to fight for his club in the press. This winter Major League Baseball announced a preliminary plan to drastically alter the minor league baseball landscape. The proposal, introduced by a handful of MLB clubs led by the recently-maligned Houston Astros, included the elimination of 42 minor league baseball teams all over the country. French was incensed to see his Daytona Beach team on MLB’s team contraction list, and he put his PR skills to work to fight back.
“I don’t know any team owners that have my same background,” French said. “Honestly, it’s allowed me to become more forward-facing on this issue and use the power of earned media to articulate our point of view.”
During this fall and winter, French appeared on national news and sports talk shows and landed a Christmas Eve feature story in the New York Post to push back against the Major League Baseball plan. What PRSA members can take away from his plight is the strategy he uses behind his placements. Knowing his opposition – MLB ownership – is primarily a wealthy, Republican-leaning audience, he did multiple Fox News TV hits in November and December and appeared on Fox Business last month to continue the fight.
In December, Bernie Sanders tweeted in opposition of the MLB plan, which took care of baseball fans on the other side of the political spectrum. Sanders was soon joined by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and a bi-partisan coalition of over 100 members of Congress in opposing the contraction plan. He’s also kept some open invites to shows in his back pocket to make another push in spring as baseball swings back into action.
“We’ve been able to use the media to make our case as to why minor league baseball is so important to the economy of these local communities,” French said. “It’s been a beneficial mix of skills in what has been a very public battle that is expected to continue for another 5-6 months.”
For decades, minor league baseball has been an important part of the fabric of towns and cities across America. French’s team in Daytona Beach, Florida, owns a special place in baseball lore because it was the place where civil rights icon Jackie Robinson first broke baseball’s color barrier. Robinson first took the field for the Montreal Royals — at the time the Brooklyn Dodger’s AAA team — during a Spring Training game in 1946. That historic game is featured prominently in the award-winning film “42” and the club that French now owns renamed the stadium Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 in his honor.
“Our stadium is beloved. We have one of the oldest stadiums in all of professional baseball,” French said of the park that opened in 1914. “And we wear that as a badge of honor. I can’t imagine tearing down where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, as some have suggested we might need to do to save Minor League Baseball in Daytona. It would be akin to tearing down Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, and it would be a crime that I want no part of.”
His PR crusade to save the soul of professional baseball aside, French remains as active as any PR practitioner in the country. When not at the ballpark in Florida or his agency in North Carolina, French serves on the boards of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Buddy Holly Educational Foundation, Texas Heritage Songwriters Association, TowneBank and Teen Cancer America, the national charity founded by the iconic rock band The Who. He’s an accomplished movie producer and even finds time to keep his playing days alive, suiting up at shortstop for an adult baseball team.
French, who founded FWV in 1997, offers advice for young PR professionals looking to sharpen their sword or make a jump professionally:
- Get involved in your community: “Part of the job of a public relations counselor is to be active in their community and understand the nuances and issues taking place.”
- Be engaged. “Public relations isn’t just writing press releases and making media calls.”
- Consume as much media as you can, open to all points of view. “Consume media of all types and focus on the bigger world around you.”
“The biggest thing young PR professionals can do is open their minds to alternate points of view and open their hearts to being compassionate and giving back in their communities,” French said. “If you do those things, I think you’ll establish your career as an important PR counselor that people will listen to and respect.”
Josh Rattray is a communications professional working in college sports at Ball State University. He has worked at full-service and SEO agencies in addition to 12 years in college athletics. He is a member of the PRSA Hoosier Chapter. Contact him via email at email@example.com