Bret Strelow is director for strategic communications in the department of athletics at Appalachian State University. He previously worked as a sportswriter at several newspapers in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Strelow discusses his job at App State and his transition from news to public relations.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. My title says I’m a director of strategic communications, so I should probably be better at communicating what I do for a living, right? Essentially, for the App State Athletics Department, I play a big role in planning and producing information that is communicated both externally to the public and internally.
That includes but is not limited to working with our athletics department administrators on bigger-picture matters (construction projects, proposals to various boards at the state or campus level), our fundraising arm (the Yosef Club on fundraising initiatives, membership drives, ticket/parking/benefit updates for members), our ticket office (season-ticket releases, etc.), our marketing department (department-wide and sport-specific promotions), our facilities personnel (for event planning), our Learfield IMG College employees (on sponsored content and events) and certainly, last, but not least, our coaches and student-athletes in terms of game operation (staffing of and running stats for home events) as well as coverage of their games/accomplishments on our web site, social media and through press releases, publication design/editing and maintaining/updating their team web pages.
That part involves written content, graphics, photography, working with our video production team (for creative content and live streams) and media relations for newspapers, television stations, radio stations and other outlets that are covering App State independently.
The best answer I can give about a typical day is that every time you begin a day with a plan for what you want to work on, very quickly new, unexpected things jump on your to-do list where prioritizing the most urgent or important items is vital. With requests from administrators, coaches, the Yosef Club, ticketing, our marketing department and other entities all coming in, that can be a delicate balance to strike of what to tackle first, but we are all working together with the hope that our efforts serve a greater good for the university as a whole.
I typically am in the office Monday-Friday starting around 8 or 9 a.m. and am working until at least 5 p.m. each day, often longer in the office or at home in the evenings, and definitely longer when there are night games on the schedule. Obviously, in sports, that means working a lot of weekend days and nights, and in certain seasons, it’s working every day of the week.
In football season, for instance, a Monday would focus heavily on game notes for the next weekend’s game and the content for the souvenir game program if it’s a home game, as well as setting up/covering a coach’s press availability. In the past, our Tuesdays and Wednesdays involved open practices for the media at the end of days in which you’re doing a lot of other work from 9-4. Each day you’re trying to produce football-related content, and in the case of a road game, you’re probably traveling on a Friday.
Later in the week is when you’re dealing with credential/parking requests and press box set-up with your game notes, or creating/printing the big flipcards that have info on both teams. My (often frustrating) relationship with printers has increased exponentially since switching from newspapers to the SID side.
Game day involves being there several hours early and working several hours after the game on recaps/photo galleries/stat submissions to your website, the NCAA, your conference. By Sunday morning, there are awards submissions, and often work must begin on game notes/game program items Sunday in order to have a shot at finishing it Monday given the nature of having weekday meetings and other responsibilities.
At App State, we have five or six people available to handle 20 varsity sports, so my sport-specific responsibilities have been being a primary SID or contact for football in the fall (I’m actually No. 2 behind my boss, but football requires a lot), wrestling in the winter and baseball in the spring. Baseball plays more than 50 games a year, often on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so it’s handling those game events in addition to the regular Monday-Friday office schedule.
I promise this will be my longest answer. I do type words for a living.
Q. How do story editing and headline writing work for the Appalachian State sports website?
A. For most of the day-to-day, sport-specific writing (game previews, recaps, notes), the person in charge of his or her sport basically self-edits, because there’s just not time for everyone to read over everyone else’s work. Given my background as a sports writer, I am the most involved in our department in checking over some of those other stories for typos/clarity. Additionally, my boss (the head of our six-person staff) and I are definitely involved in the editing of bigger stories for each sport, like a coach hiring, and the two of us write a lot of the content for bigger-picture matters involving the athletics department and personnel.
Headline writing is done mostly with the space confines of the website template in mind so that it’s not too long but still includes the most important, search-triggering info of who and what. With so many stories on our site, naming by sport instead of school or as some combo of the two can be a bit tricky so as not to be redundant with everything including App State but still reading in a smooth way.
Q. You covered Appalachian State as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville Observer. What was it like to move from reporting on the school’s sports programs to working for them?
A. The changes are more subtle than drastic, but there are differences. With my football coverage, I probably do try to write in more of a “beat writer” way than most SIDs with creative, detailed ledes and more color. And working in features for our site and game program is one of the reasons I’m in this role at all — to beef up our storytelling.
On the flip side, certainly I’m focusing on the positives, and I also write with an idea of what the coaches value. Football game stories tend to focus on the scoring and offense, for instance, but making sure to give a good defensive performance its due and include defensive items high in a story are things I’ve learned quickly based on how my story is perceived by the people with whom I work on a daily basis. And if a team I’m covering suffers a one-sided loss, that’s going to be a pretty short, matter-of-fact recap.
Q. It’s “talking season” in college football. What is the word on the Mountaineers this year?
A. It should be an exciting year. App State is coming off an 11-2 season in which it won its third straight conference title and improved to 4-0 in FBS bowl games.
The Mountaineers lost only one offensive starter and four defensive starters from the 2018 team, but there are plenty of new faces at the top and among the staff with head coach Eliah Drinkwitz replacing Scott Satterfield. How the new-look staff comes together with a talented, accomplished foundation, both in terms of personnel and program identity, is the question we’ll figure out an answer to as the 2019 team develops its own identity with a system that is, in some ways, different for everyone.
Is that a good enough PR answer? With a Sun Belt schedule that includes road games against some of the better teams in the league, plus a nonconference schedule that includes two Power Five opponents in North Carolina and South Carolina, there are definitely reasons to dream big but proceed with an awareness that past success doesn’t guarantee anything this year.