Killing Indifference and Killing the Game, One Man's Journey to the Height of his Industry

By: Adam White, @FOSAdam

Michael Ehrlich, Director of US Public Relations for adidas

Michael Ehrlich, Director of US Public Relations for adidas

Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Michael Ehrlich, Director of US Public Relations for adidas. A University of Southern California alum, Michael knew that he was going to have a career in sports; it was just a question of if it would be as a player or as an executive.

“Growing up, I always knew I wanted to work in sports and in the back of your mind as a kid there is always that dream of playing college or pro sports. Unfortunately for me, I am the same size I am now (6’2”) as I was in 7th grade. When you stop growing at such an early age, it puts a hold on your dreams."

Like many of us, Michael found himself getting into sports from the business side after his playing days were over.

Growing up loving aspects of journalism, he knew he needed to combine his love of that with his love for sports if he truly wanted to make an impact.

“As I grew up, I was always interested in reading, writing and journalism so I knew there was an avenue to pursue down that path especially if I combined it with my love of sports.”     

Sometimes the most stressful part of high school is deciding where you want to attend college, but for Michael, he knew where he wanted to go as soon as he stepped on campus.

“I would hone my reading and writing skills throughout high school and when it came time to pick a college, USC was an easy choice for me. The energy, school spirit and passion that I felt when I stepped on campus for the very first time validated my choice. It was the perfect size and was in the perfect location. Being in such a great sports and media market as LA was very appealing to me.”

Once on campus, he knew he had to take advantage of USC’s athletic department to get his foot in the door and in the industry. Before school had even started for him, he found himself inside the SID’s office.

“To be honest, I came in very aggressive in terms of the internship side of things. I knew that I wanted to work in the sports information office, so even before I started school, I was on campus over the summer with my mom and I made her wait in the lobby of Heritage Hall as I walked in to the SID office and introduced myself to the department. During the summer, there is not much going on and they were very receptive and excited to meet me. They told me to come back on the first day of class and that they would work on finding something for me to do.”

It was that determination and drive he showed before ever attending his first class that won over his superiors and gave him an opportunity for his first days on campus.

“Obviously, on the first day of school I am back there first thing in the morning and I started a semester long internship with the SID office. It was my first real taste of big time college athletics and I truly enjoyed everything about it.”

Due to his willingness to want to contribute starting his freshman year, he had the opportunity to be a part of things many administrators don’t get to experience their entire career.

“Luckily for me, my freshman year was the year that Carson Palmer won the Heisman so I was able to work on that campaign which was a ton of fun for me.”

He would go on to transition his skills he had learned at USC into an opportunity to intern with the NBA Summer League when it was based out of Long Beach. He didn’t stop there. He wasn’t satisfied.

With his parents close by, he often went home for the weekend, but one weekend in particular would change the course of his career and put him on the fast track to where he wanted to be.

“During my junior year, my parents were living in Santa Barbara and I was home for the weekend and I just so happened to read an article in the paper about a famous Lakers executive who was from Santa Barbara. After reading the article, I came up with the idea to look him up in the phone book and reach out to him as a local. Ultimately, I was able to connect with him, give him my resume and talk to him about what internship opportunities the Lakers had available.”

“Long story short, the exec that I had connected with said he would hand deliver my resume to the hiring manager and I interviewed for their fall internship and ended up ultimately getting it for the entire 05-06’ season. The responsibilities included working at all the games and in the office one day a week.”

As a kid who grew up in Northern California, he was a Warriors fan at heart (and yes the Warriors had fans before Steph Curry), but he knew that this opportunity was too good to pass up and one that, “at some point you have to step outside your fandom to take advantage of the best possible career opportunities.”

A kid from Northern California had used the same gusto and bravado he had to get his first position at USC to find himself interning for the Lakers his senior year of college.

At the time the Lakers were playing well and were having success on and off the court, but little did Michael know that his first day on the job would not be spent answering phones, but shadowing one of the greatest to ever play the game.

“My first day on the job was media day and my first assignment that day was to shadow Kobe.  As you can imagine, it was a pretty exciting day for me because not only was shadowing Kobe great, but being able to be part of such a large scale event on my first day was eye opening.”

The Lakers internship turned out to be such a great fit for him not only because of the sports experience, but also because of all the other opportunities it allowed him.

“My favorite part of the internship was getting to know the writers and the media members on a personal and professional level. I was honestly more star struck to meet reporters like Bill Plaschke and J.A. Adande than I was to meet Kobe.”

“It was a unique internship because not only was it PR for basketball, but being based in LA it was also a good mix of culture and entertainment all rolled into one.”

Although he would be more star struck to meet J.A. Adande than Kobe, nothing could compare to what he would get to do after Kobe’s 81 point game.

“One of my most memorable moments while I was with the Lakers was Kobe’s 81-point game because I ended up going home with the game ball that night. I happened to be working at the office the next morning so they asked me to take the ball home, guard it with my life and then bring it in to work the next morning.”

“As an intern, I spent the night with Kobe’s 81 point ball and obviously my friends were super excited and jealous but it was definitely a unique experience.”

Not bad for a kid who put aside his Warriors fandom just a few months earlier to take a role he knew would be beneficial and that would turn out to be much more than that.

“After working there for a season I came to love the organization from the top down and knew that I wanted to combine PR and sports in some way as my future career. It was an absolutely incredible experience.”

As someone who interned with the USC athletic department, the NBA and the Lakers, you would think that a job would be waiting for him upon graduation, but that wasn’t the case.

“When I graduated, I didn’t have a job and I was freaking out a little bit, but luckily the USC career center and career department that they have there is incredible. I was really interested in exploring the sports agency side after graduation but not on the typical contractual side, but on the brand building and marketing side of agencies and working with athletes on an editorial and media side. The career center knew this and was able to help me land a position at Hollywood talent agency, The Gersh Agency."

One of the many reasons he found this position so enticing was that it allowed him to combine all of his previous knowledge and help the agency build their football division from the ground up.

“At the time I landed the position, they had just started a football division and to build on the Laker experience and help them start from square one was such a great and holistic experience for me as I got to experience every inch of the agency world.

“It was an incredible experience that as not only eye-opening, but beneficial to my career as I was able to explore different avenues that I might not have been able to before.”

“At that point, was when I really fell in love with the entire PR process from building an athletes brand, to working with the media, to helping up their draft stock. This experience really set me on a path to where I am now and really a key point in my career growth.”

After his time at Gersh, he found himself moving from agency side to client side as he spent three years working for Hill and Knowlton, adidas’ PR Agency. It was at that point he would make the switch to brand side and come on full time as part of adidas’ internal PR staff. 

He credits his smooth transitions to the experience he has had on each aspect of the PR side and his familiarity with the adidas brand.

“Before I moved to Portland to work in house, I spent three years working at adidas’ PR Agency. I went from the agency side to client side after I moved from Gersh to H & K, but being able to have that familiarity with the adidas brand before I moved in house was extremely beneficial.”

Like many of his other experiences, he was thrown into the fire right away.  

“The first month I moved in house, we launched one of our biggest global campaigns ever that spanned across the world as well as sports and style divisions, which was just a truly incredible experience for me. Obviously, since then, we have had other global campaigns that have been similar in size and depth of athlete involvement, but every time we have a campaign like that it is exciting for me.”

Being at adidas now for four years, Michael has had the ability to implement his PR ideals on the company and their initiatives. When developing and implementing a PR initiative, Michael focuses on the ability to kill indifference.

“One thing that I always go back to and I think that it stands beyond just PR is the ability to kill indifference. Killing indifference is something that I know I pride myself on and that I know a lot of people around here pride themselves on. If we don’t get action on something, we are not doing our job. Obviously some people are going to love what you do and some people are going to hate what you do, but they are talking about it, debating about it and engaging with it where it takes on a different level. If we put out a piece of content that tells a story and there is no reaction good or bad, we have failed. Being the most talked about brand, being the most talked about product, being the most talked about athlete are some of the key points of importance for us.”

One of the most fun aspects of this industry for him is to see how social media has evolved and the role it is playing not only in his professional life, but also in his personal life.

“Social media and new media is a 100% help for PR. I am intrigued by the opportunity for athletes to take control of their own brand and more importantly their own narrative. I love what The Players’ Tribune is doing to give athletes a new voice and a new way to showcase their stories.”

“I think the best brands and the best athletes use social to their advantage by allowing access that their fans can’t get anywhere else.”

"The new age of social media has helped create the best storytelling platforms, opportunities and something that I really have a passion about.”

“It has been so much fun for me because when I first started in PR social media was just gaining traction and to see the skills and evolution of social media in this industry both from a personal and professional standpoint is so exciting.”

Not only is his passion for social media something he takes seriously it is something that he wants to see adidas do even better this year as they look to capitalize on the momentum they have built.

“That is something we are trying to do this year is to really ramp up our social media that much more and leverage our brand and our athletes and our partners to really be those story tellers and to be authentic. Authenticity is key. We want our athletes to speak how they speak, to talk about products how they talk about products.”

As the world continues to become more interconnected and with new mediums and ways to do things popping up everyday Michael is excited about the future of PR and what the landscape will look like only a few years from now, although it may keep him awake at night.

“The evolution of social is going to be big along with the fusing of traditional editorial content and social content is going to be imperative. It is so interesting because you are very rarely pitching interviews and print pieces because of the speed of news nowadays and the speed of the industry. I find myself interacting with media more so over social than over the phone or even email. Although the communication is on the same device, the communication is quicker, more actionable and more instant."

"The 24-hour news cycle has really driven the PR and media relationship and we are never not working. You are basically on the clock all the time and if something pops up, both good and bad, you are expected to react."

Although his job may be filled with long days and lots of travel, Michael is thankful for everything the last ten years have brought him.

“Growing up a sports fan I always wanted to go to the major sporting events and it was always a goal to get there somehow whether as a fan or professionally and being able to experience what I have over the last decade has been priceless.”

“My fondest memory would have to be the 2014 FIFA World Cup as I was in Brazil for about 40 days. Obviously it was great to go to the games and to see the famous stadiums all over the country, but to be able to work with my counterparts across the globe and to not only learn from them, but also work along side them was invaluable. Having everyone together to work on telling one story to elevate our brand, our athletes and our teams was incredible.”

For someone who grew up loving journalism, he credits those type of skills to what make a good PR professional today and as the head of the internship program, it is what he instills in his employees when looking for good candidates.

“I head up the internship program for our team and what I stress to everyone is that when they are looking for candidates is that having the functional PR skills is a plus, but that it is necessary to have excellent writing and communication skills.”

“It is really all about communication skills, writing skills and critical thinking. If you can do that, you can do just about anything in this industry because everything we handle involves each of those things. You can learn certain skills, but having a basis in communication is paramount.”

For students who may be deciding between one career or another, Michael made the case for PR saying, “I think PR is the perfect function to really explore your professional interests because it really is centered on communication, writing and critical thinking that with PR experience, you can really do anything."

"With those skills at your disposal, you can explore any career path."

"The way the PR landscape is evolving is only going to make the industry better. It is truly an open ended career path at this point.”

Although this Michael is probably a lot different than the one who made his mom wait in the lobby of the USC athletic department while he talked to the SID, one thing is for sure; that passion he showed that day is still evident today.

You can follow Michael on Twitter at @MichaelEhrlich and @adidasUSPRGuy 

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