Interview with Jade Gurss, Best-Selling Author and Sports Publicist
Jade Gurss owns fingerprint inc., a sports publicity company which he founded in 1999. Gurss has had an impressive list of clients, but none more famous than NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., one of the world’s best-known athletes.
Gurss was Earnhardt Jr.’s publicist from 1999 through 2007, traveling the NASCAR circuit with the race team and directing media and public relations for Earnhardt Jr. and the Budweiser NASCAR program.
A two-time New York Times Best-Selling author, Gurss chronicles the inside story of the 2001 NASCAR season with the No. 8 Budweiser team in his latest book, “In The Red“, which is available in hardcover and all eBook formats.
He also co-authored “Driver #8” with Earnhardt Jr., and “DW: A Lifetime Going Around in Circles” with Darrell Waltrip. “Driver No. 8″ was Amazon’s top-selling sports book of 2002 and spent 17 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Given his extensive experience at the highest levels of his chosen field, Gurss graciously shares insights into the world of public relations with the readers of CareerThoughts.com.
Q. I have heard Public Relations (PR) defined as managing the public’s perception of a client’s Personality and Reputation. How do you define it?
A. I suppose that’s a simplistic definition. Effective publicity and media relations is about disseminating a compelling story or narrative that emphasizes and enhances the best of a person, brand or company.
Q. How did you get started in the PR field? Did you always know this was how you wanted to make a living?
A. Not at all – it was a happy accident. My degree is in broadcast production as well as an audio engineering background. I fell into the publicity side of things through a series of serendipitous happenings at my first job in racing at (the then brand-new) Heartland Park Topeka.
Q. Is PR a highly competitive field? What special talents or abilities are helpful to be successful and separate yourself from the competition?
A. I don’t think it’s more or less competitive than any other aspect of business. With today’s economic situation, every job is highly competitive. Especially in sports and media, the jobs are perceived to be more sexy or glamorous, which means there’s always someone willing to do your job for less.
The best publicists are creative and eclectic. A knack for understanding narrative and story-telling doesn’t hurt either. Just writing news releases is no longer an effective approach. Actually, I don’t think that’s ever been the most effective path …
Q. Is a college degree necessary to work in PR and, if so, what subjects should someone major in?
A. Not essential, but helpful. Get as many unique experiences as possible: work in retail, understand sales and business, understand media and journalism. Be open to new ideas – always.
I have constantly utilized lessons learned from working for my dad’s business, playing in rock bands and running a small retail business, as well as my technical background in audio and television production.
Q. Your former client, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is not only a famous NASCAR driver, but one of the world’s most widely recognized celebrities. How did you end up as his publicist?
A. When Anheuser-Busch (based in St. Louis) signed a long-term sponsorship to move Dale Jr. from the Busch Series to Winston Cup, they were looking for someone to oversee the program in Charlotte. A former co-worker was in the sports marketing department for Bud, and he brought me in for an interview. At that time, I was working for Ilmor Engineering, the race-engine design and development arm of Mercedes-Benz, so I was able to apply a lot of what I learned with Mercedes to start my own agency to manage all of the media and publicity. Budweiser was my client for the entire Dale Jr.-era from 1999 through the end of the 2007 season.
Q. What are the perks and frustrations of representing someone as famous as Dale Jr.?
A. The perks are many, and there was never a dull moment. If you read “In The Red,” I cover a lot of the cool things we were able to experience. It was a perfect blend of the right driver with the right sponsor at the right time, so I just had to steer the bucking bronco in the right direction. The frustrations mainly emanated from the fact that it was all-encompassing, seven days a week and traveling 40+ weeks a year. Doing that relentless schedule at such a high-energy pace really wore on me after the first four or five seasons.
Q. These days, athletes and celebrities can talk directly to their fans via social media, while print publications like newspapers are, to some degree, losing their influence. How has social media changed the traditional PR role?
A. It takes the middleman out of the relationship between the athlete and the fans. It doesn’t replace traditional media, but it’s an amazing tool that – if done correctly – can help an athlete build a more direct connection with fans with a much more personal touch. To be most impactful, the athlete has to be genuine – which is not always encouraged by conservative publicists or sponsors who prefer a buttoned-up, politically correct image. I’m more convinced than ever that approach is not the way to go. From day one, Bud insisted Dale Jr. just be himself, to be real and NEVER be fake, and I think that approach was a key component in making his fans more devoted and loyal.
Q. You are not only a successful publicist, but a two-time best-selling author. What prompted you to write a book and how hard was it to get published?
A. His first season in Cup was going to be history: no matter what happened the rest of his life, there would never again be a first Daytona 500 for Dale Jr. My job was to capture that history and present it in the best possible manner. I originally wanted to do a documentary about his rookie season, but reality TV hadn’t reached the level it’s at now, so no one was willing to write the check. (Ha!) So, my mountains of notes from each race weekend and all of the appearances eventually turned into the first book. I was confident I could do it, and no one said I couldn’t, so I jumped in with both feet. After that, I was asked by Darrell Waltrip to help him with his autobiography, and the latest one is something that germinated for more than a decade.
Publishing is a completely different game these days – we did the old fashioned way of having publishers bid on the rights to the book. That process could fill a chapter of a book itself.
Q. What is the best career advice you ever got and who was it from?
A. My mentor to this day is Bill Kentling – he was my boss at Heartland Park more than 20 years ago, and he’s edited each of my three books. He has always been able to inspire and motivate me by having confidence in me as a person and my abilities (and kicking my ass when I made grammatical mistakes too many times… ha!). My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and the sense that I could do anything I chose to do.
Q. What career advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in public relations, communications, or a similar field?
A. My best career advice is to pursue your passion no matter what career you choose. That’s the only way to succeed. Half-assed won’t cut it. Read the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, particularly the “10,000 Hour Rule.” There are no shortcuts.