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Seasoned PR Executive to Hone Ed. Dept.’s Message
Sports or education, the message is the same: Go! Team! RAH! RAH!
By Michelle R. Davis
The Department of Education’s new guru of public relations views himself as a one-man focus group.
With four children attending schools from the elementary level to college, Kevin F. Sullivan figures he has the perfect perspective on the education issues he’s facing on a daily basis.
Though Mr. Sullivan has thin credentials in the field of education policy, he has climbed steadily up the career ladder in public relations ever since being hired straight out of college by the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association. His other major PR experience has been with the NBC television network, from promoting its sports department to handling corporate-communications matters.
In his first discussion with Secretary Spellings about the Education Department job, Mr. Sullivan said he made it clear that he knew more about zone defenses and jump shots than adequate yearly progress for schools.
“She pointed out that I was a consumer of education,” Mr. Sullivan said in an interview this month, adding that he sees shared ground between his decades in the sports world and working at the Education Department.
“There’s probably more in common than you would think,” he said. “There’s a lot of breaking news, a lot of stuff coming in the door. … The skills really do translate.”
A Clean Sweep
Mr. Sullivan, 46, who was nominated by President Bush in April and confirmed by the Senate on July 29, said that so far he’s been learning about federal education policy and meeting with staff members. His position centralizes most public relations activities within the Education Department, bringing together internal and external communications. But Mr. Sullivan, known to his friends as “Sully,” also has some repair work to do.
On March 4, when the new post was announced as part of a department-wide restructuring plan, the goal appeared to be to mop up several messy public relations gaffes that occurred under then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
For example, the department distributed several video news releases promoting Bush administration education programs. Also, under a $1 million contract with the New York City-based public relations firm Ketchum Inc., the conservative pundit Armstrong Williams was paid some $240,000 in Education Department money to help promote the No Child Left Behind law through appearances on television and in his syndicated newspaper column.
Mr. Sullivan said that during his first job interview with Ms. Spellings, she made it clear that those types of arrangements were intolerable. “There’s no question that I’m accountable,” he said. “It doesn’t scare me at all because I can’t imagine doing something like that anyway.”
He said there was a need to repair the department’s credibility, however.
“I really believe we have a great story to tell here, and I don’t want the telling of that story to be in any way compromised or conflicted by the notion that there’s something inappropriate going on,” he said.
But Randall J. Moody, the chief lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, said the problem is not with the department’s marketing efforts, but with its policy approach to improving the nation’s schools.
“The more important thing is to get the right message rather than how to shape it,” Mr. Moody said. “As long as they stay as rigid as they have been in terms of defending No Child Left Behind, I don’t know that a PR effort is going to do much good.”
Mr. Sullivan said he believes many tasks done in the past by external PR firms for the department could be done by department staff members. He said that one goal of his is to get the 200 people who deal with various aspects of communications and are spread among different locations in the department to work as a team.
Shortly after graduating from Purdue University in 1980, the Chicago native was one of the first hires of the NBA’s Dallas expansion franchise. Norm Sanju, the Mavericks’ founding general manager, said he watched Mr. Sullivan blossom over the next 18 years.
“Kevin really grew and got exponentially better,” said Mr. Sanju, who served as the young man’s mentor.
Over almost two decades with the Mavericks, Mr. Sullivan became adept at handling the team’s ups and downs, including losing streaks, the drug addiction of a talented player, coach and player tantrums, and the NBA’s player lockout in 1998.
He was one of the best-liked PR people in the business, Mr. Sanju said, one who deftly juggled the needs of newspaper beat writers, national reporters, and players.
“He’s been able to deal with the biggest egos you can imagine,” Mr. Sanju said.
During his time with the Mavericks, Mr. Sullivan met George W. Bush, then a part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, who would often relax at a Mavericks game.
In 1998, Mr. Sullivan was placed on loan to a group pushing for Dallas to become the U.S. contender for the site of the 2012 Olympics. Though the effort failed, Mr. Sullivan worked closely with lawyer and Olympics booster Thomas W. Luce III, who earlier this year was confirmed as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. ("Texas ‘Agitator’ in Line for Ed. Dept. Post," May 25, 2005)
In 2000, Mr. Sullivan went to work at NBC Sports, where he coordinated media relations for the network’s Olympics coverage. He later became a senior corporate-communications officer for NBC Universal when the TV network merged with Universal Studios.
But his connection to Mr. Luce resulted in a detour to Washington.
Though he reserves a passion for his hometown team the Chicago White Sox, which he watched trounce the Baltimore Orioles during his first professional-sports outing in the Washington area, Mr. Sullivan said he’s fired up about his new position.
“My first day on the job, I came in here and looked out the window, and there was the Capitol,” he said. “I thought, ‘I really am working for the president.’ ”
Michelle R. Davis
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