Posted September 28, 2002

Robert Weiner, shown at the 2002 Orono masters nationals, is a serious racer as well as public relations pro. He was third in the M55 3,000-meter steeplechase in Maine and seventh in the 1,500 in his age group, running 5:27.53 on a hot August day.

 Photos by Ken Stone

Pushing for PR: An interview with media guru Robert Weiner

The July 2002 issue of National Masters News carried an intriguing advertisement. Lacking any pictures but full of text, the 5-by-3.5-inch ad was headlined: “WANT PRESS FOR YOUR RACE / MEET?”  The ad was placed by masters runner Robert Weiner, who runs a public relations agency in the Washington, D.C., area.  (His most notable client: former drug czar Barry McCaffrey and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.)  In the ad, Weiner wrote: “Too often at national, regional, even world-class events, there is zero or next to no major press coverage -- despite top-quality athletes who break national age records in your meet.”  The following interview was conducted via e-mail in early August 2002. What can you do for the director of a small-sized masters meet who can barely afford auto timing? 

Robert Weiner: Help with the obvious: Guide him or her to put out a press advisory and make calls to the local and regional media -- press, radio, TV, etc., both in ramping up the meet and in results publicity.  Just today, in exactly such a case, we arranged Washington Post coverage and results printing, both in its electronic and printed versions, of the DC Road Runners Club Track Championships, with the headline “DC Road Runners Club Track Championship.”

What can you do for a national masters meet that supposedly has the press support of Indy?

The answer is the same; the level is far different.  The contacts broaden to CNN, ESPN, ABC Wide World of Sports, “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” network news shows, and all major print media like the NY Times, AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, news magazines like Time and Newsweek, etc., and in a continuing way from buildup to entire event coverage to analysis -- in other words: what we did for the Salt Lake Olympics drug testing oversight by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

What would you charge in both instances?

Have to negotiate on time and project, whether travel to the event is necessary (obviously was to the Salt Lake Games and took two months of time including organizational buildup, but many projects are three-day needs, and some can be done right from our home office).  If something is too small, it may be a pro-bono discussion with a race director to guide him to the obvious contacts and actions for minor but satisfying coverage for his or her purposes.  To engage our company in real terms, however, the project can be from $1,000 to $100,000.

The masters movement, judging by turnouts at major meets, has stagnated in the past 10 years. What’s behind this, and what can be done about it?

Well, they don’t help themselves by having summer national championships in the hottest weather locations like Baton Rouge and Orlando, that’s for sure.  But Orono, Maine, and Eugene, Oregon, have drawn nicely.  Don’t think the “movement” has stagnated, just the excitement along with it -- and that’s exactly what media coverage can correct.  It regenerates the excitement we all feel about lifetime fitness and competitive running at all ages.  It’s an important part of our lives, gives us fulfillment, makes us fit, helps us (we think) live longer.  Media coverage spreads the word of this mission.

Does the appearance of your service mean USATF’s  media apparatus is a lost cause? 

What media apparatus?  The sporadic track meet coverage on an occasional TV show?  Talk about lost opportunities!  When I was at the White House, I arranged for multiple Olympic gold medalist/world record holder Michael Johnson to do anti-drug TV spots.  We put them on the air, with Michael graciously providing his talent for free and the TV producers doing likewise.  Networks ran the spots free of charge in prime time during the Olympics both in 1996 and 2000 (we updated the spots for Sydney), and regularly between.  We offered them to USATF for their track meet series TV coverage, and they ran one spot once during their five-meet series.  All they wanted was a deal with our office to fund USATF, it seemed.  I was really turned off by the lack of understanding for the cause -- they lost a good opportunity. On the broader question, I think USATF doesn’t know how to promote its star-studded program as broadly as possible.  Craig Masback is well-intentioned, but his media operation does lack vision. We (USA track and field) have the best (athletes) and we don’t strut it to the enormous U.S. and world press.

Your experience in government PR is vast. But how do you know that will that translate into success for masters meets?

Enthusiasm and synthesis and doing the obvious works in any field! Even while in government I maintained my running organizational activity. As president of the Capitol Hill Runners, I brought Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers to the Mobil Invitational Track Meet and generated the bulk of the feature press for the meet through the Masters Mile that Jay Wind and I directed.  Over the years, we also brought in Eamonn Coughlan, Kip Keino, and Jim Ryun and again generated tons of press for the event.  This is not a “switch” for me -- it’s part of what I do and always have done.

Are you sure you’re offering the right service? Your credits suggest you’d be better off writing grant applications for masters track. 

Silly question.  I love working with the press.  Someone else can write grants.

You’re a busy guy. How will you squeeze in the masters gig? If staffers do the work, what is their background for sports event promotion?

As I said, it’s part of my life -- running is in the continuum of what we do. My business cards even have two seals -- a U.S. government seal on the left and a runner on the right.  At the White House, I emphasized fighting drugs in sports and generated the press for drug czar McCaffrey’s superb efforts in bringing that issue forward, and I coordinated our press operations in Sydney and as I mentioned in Salt Lake.  I brought Frank Shorter into the U.S. world anti-drug delegation to the IOC and now he is chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, was and is a longtime friend (as is Bill Rodgers, who had me and the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, when I was its president, at his home in Massachusetts).  This isn’t a job; it’s a passion -- and my point is that masters running is missing the boat by not exponentially magnifying the movement through effective media. As for my staff colleagues in my company, webmaster Jay Wind is also a devoted masters runner and race director, as are a number of others on our team.

You’ve worked a lot with the drug czar. What’s your stand on drug-testing of masters athletes? 

It’s disgraceful to see masters runners before a race shooting stuff up their noses, and then competing.  I’ve seen it.  It’s not worth it.  I’ve also seen the people who do that disappear from masters running in a few years. So what did they gain?  A temporary advantage and a near-term downfall from abusing their body beyond its limits?  Terrific.  The brutality of drugs is coming out so clearly now -- 10,000 East German teen swimmers now, 20 and 30 years later, with severe liver and nerve damage. In other sports, in the U.S. and around the world, guys with shrunken testes, gals with hair on their chests. Memory loss coming sooner than senior moments.  Don’t tell me how Flo-Jo had no drugs when she died, 10 years after her competition. Of course not! Her abrupt quitting of the sport when drug testing started flourishing and then dying “without drugs” has nothing to do with what she may or may not have done prior to and/or during the competitions because drugs obviously don’t test positive 10 years later.  The question is what did she do to herself 10 years earlier that she may quite well have paid the ultimate price for by her untimely death.  So having said all that, I think random tests of masters athletes is a very good thing. That’s WADA’s and the IOC’s philosophy, and it should be ours -- deterrence through testing. No one wants to get caught and embarrassed because that would destroy the very ego involved in the joy of winning. So yes, let’s random-test at our competitions as fully as money allows -- the fear of embarrassment will be a useful deterrent.  I also think WADA Chairman Dick Pound’s point about the BS of disproportionate “asthma” claims by athletes so they can get drug waivers is right on, needs investigation.  The fittest people don’t have six times the asthma of the general population.

What led you to offer this service to masters track? 

We have top national- and world-class runners with huge media potential at our meets, yet there is a big vacuum with missed opportunities for spreading the message about the importance of our cause.

Besides the masters track credits noted on your site, what is the extent of your track participation?  Where do you train and compete?  What are your all-time PRs, recent age-group PRs?

Oh, I still have the dream of breakthroughs relative to age, so I keep at it -- running twice daily most days, averaging 60-mile weeks now (used to be more --don’t we all say that).  My joy was in high school (Blair Academy) cross country going from last in eighth grade to captain of the team, breaking the school record, taking third at States both in cross country and in the mile in track (4:35). In college (Oberlin), the high point was, together with Bob Murphey, winning the Ohio Conference two-man cross country relays (each guy did 4x1 mile) over 50 other teams.  I remember the adrenaline high I had in leading that last leg - -winning the conference! I had dreams of breaking 4 in the mile, followed Peter Snell’s workouts, but never really got better than the low 4:20s.  The genes weren’t there.  But masters running has revitalized me.  One recent rush was at a masters national championship in the 45-49 and taking the lead with two (of 8) laps to go, losing it with 150 yards to go but holding second.  And taking second to Byron Dyce at the Southeasterns 1500 in 4:31.  But I lost a lot of the training sharpness capacity when I tore an Achilles six years ago doing 200s indoors while training for the Mobil Invitational.  It just stopped hurting a year ago. I also like the steeplechase.  I practice going over logs in the woods behind my house -- we purposely live adjacent to a national forest and have miles of trails around us.  I train and race with three clubs in the DC area -- Potomac Runners, DC Road Runners, and Potomac Valley Track Club, as well as on my own.  And I also have a treadmill for miserable weather days.

If given a million dollars, what would you do to raise the participation levels of masters track in America?  How would you measure success? 

Let’s get stories all through major TV, radio, press, with enthusiasm for our movement and get our stars out there as vehicles to inspire everyone. There’s no “would” to how I measure success.  I measure it in major media hits, quality and quantity.  We generated the most coverage per press staff of any Cabinet agency when I directed the White House Drug Office Public Affairs for Barry McCaffrey -- over 20,000 major press articles and 5,0000 TV stories.  We had cover stories in Parade magazine, tons of nightly news spots and “Today” and “GMA,” etc.  We had the Executive Office of the President library research the relative numbers -- Gen. McCaffrey, a four-star general, likes quantifiable numbers and absolute results for everything, and so do I.  With the web, it’s now easy to quantifiably monitor media successes and to see the quality.

Would you ever be interested in running for office -- USATF Masters T&F Committee office, that is?

Haven’t thought about it.

Have you talked with anyone in USATF about your service? If so, what did they think?

No other than what I said earlier.

Finally, what kind of annual masters revenue would keep your service going?

It won’t be contingent on masters revenue unless our point here is so successful and we suddenly are able to focus exclusively -- now we work with a lot of clients (World Anti-Doping Agency, Association of Trial Lawyers of America's president Mary Alexander, United Defense/Crusader artillery, Army Distaff Foundation / Tom Brokaw gala, Vanguard Foundation drug treatment, Gen. McCaffrey, Congressman Conyers, Presidential yacht Sequoia, CRC Health Corporation's eGetgoing internet drug treatment, West Point Center on Terrorism, and others).  But I hope I’ll have a lot of good service to provide in a meaningful way to masters running -- that’s why we put the ad in.  I am always severely disappointed when I don’t see TV cameras and press flocking to our championships and regional races when I know it’s just because no one enthusiastically called them and sent them a decent press advisory and followed up, at the least, or reached out to feature reporters and local or national TV and print news magazines as the potential allows.  And thanks for letting me make this point! I hope it helps.