Q&A: Gerard Littlejohn

Gerard Littlejohn is a University of North Carolina, Charlotte graduate who kickstarted his communications career as an intern for the Charlotte Bobcats. Currently the executive director at the Steve Smith Family foundation, Gerard is an advocate for the foundation’s mission for fighting domestic violence and promoting children’s wellness. His dive into the philanthropic world began with a PR opportunity at Lowe’s — a company whose partnerships with Boys and Girls Club, the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity inspired Gerard to pursue career opportunities with positive impacts. 

Sports PR: Your communications experience spans the team, corporate and agency sides, and now you’re in the nonprofit space. Tell us what the change has been like and what the biggest learning curves have been?

Gerard Littlejohn: I’m a person who welcomes change and new challenges. I’ve always been able to appreciate looking at things from different perspectives, so being able to analyze something across spectrums makes me a better communicator and leader. I’ve also learned something different from every part of the businesses I’ve had the chance to work in, and I’m really appreciative and proud of the experiences I’ve had. Not many people get to have the breath of experience across sports, fortune companies and community organizations like I have. I’m actually pretty humbled by what I’ve been able to attain.

The biggest learning curve is always getting used to a company, organization’s or individual’s culture. Everyone operates differently, which means everything can’t be messaged the same. But regardless, the goal is always to protect and uphold the brand you’re working on. 

SPR: With so many athletes running their own nonprofits, how as a communicator, do you cut through the clutter and differentiate yourselves from the rest? 

GL: I think the biggest thing is staying true to your mission. Having a focus that is easily identifiable to the consumer is of the upmost importance. You want someone to directly connect you to a purpose and a community. The trip-ups begin when an athlete, or nonprofit tries to be too many things to too many causes and loses a clear and distinct purpose. That’s where I believe the clutter lies.

Also, it’s about choosing a mission that’s something the athlete is passionate about. Steve’s mother was a victim of domestic violence and it impacted him from an early age. After getting permission from his mother to share her story, he proceeded to start his foundation around domestic violence. That’s an example of selecting something that’s relatable.

SPR: How important do you feel community relations are to an athletes overall branding strategy? 

GL: To me, it’s one of the single most important things an athlete can do to enhance his or her brand. Don’t get me wrong, giving back should really be something genuine from the heart, but one of the first things a fan points to is ‘what is my favorite team’s athlete doing in the community I call home?’ That doesn’t mean you have only have to be active in the city you’re playing for. Often, athletes have a presence in their hometown as well.

I believe when you build loyalty to a community, it enhances your visibility and can lead to more downstream revenue (endorsements, appearances, and contract extensions). Also, community involvement can keep an athlete relevant in headlines for years after they’re done playing.

SPR: We’ve heard journalists say flat out that they don’t cover athlete foundation initiatives because if they“covered one, they’d have to cover them all.”  Do you get this kind of resistance when you’re pitching and if so, how do you navigate it?

GL: I’ve honestly never experienced that. With Steve Smith, we get a ton of support in the communities we have a presence in (Baltimore and Charlotte).  We have some great relationships and we continue to nurture them. I think when stakeholders see the impact of the initiatives you’re doing, they want to cover it because of the mission and not necessarily because of the athlete.

SPR: How do you stay innovative and creative when you have smaller budgets, smaller staff and are wearing multiple hats as the Executive Director?  

GL: It definitely requires a person that can be nimble and versatile, which I believe are essential strengths to being a good PR person. Personally, I’m a research nut, so I’m always paying attention to what others are doing. That includes brands, professional athletes, foundations, as well as your everyday nonprofits. I stay up-to-date on industry trends – from PR to marketing to philanthropy. I’m also a huge consumer of social media, so I’m always looking for innovative ideas and inspirations from those I follow or those I just happen to find.

With that being said, it’s true that you do have to wear multiple hats with not as many on staff to rely on like a team, brand or agency. Our foundation calls on our board, volunteers and interns to be an extension of our mission, but I’m doing everything to crafting and posting social media messages, scheduling interviews and appearances, meeting with our sponsors and donors and everything in-between to make our nonprofit run effectively.

SPR: What wisdom would you impart to a sports PR practitioner thinking about moving over to the nonprofit side?

GL: I’ve seen it done a time or two. My advice is to do it only if serving the community is truly a passion. It’s not for the faint of heart, but my dream has always been to fuse sports and community together. During my time in the NBA right out of school, I always enjoyed scheduling community appearances for players the most– that’s where it started. Nailing the planning of an event, getting a ton of coverage and raising funds are nice, but what’s most rewarding is seeing the impact we’re having on individuals, families, and communities. However, coming from sports PR helped me as I’m now used to working long hours, being behind the scenes, multitasking and many other functions that are relatable.