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Akasha Di Tomasso

Communications & PR at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment

Akasha is the Coordinator of Corporate Communications at MLSE, which means that she gets to work with teams like the Leafs, the Raptors and TFC. She started as an intern at MLSE three years ago and is now working in her dream role, working with her team to manage day-to-day communications and PR for all their brands and teams. I've seen some of the incredible events and experiences she's been a part of via social media, and I wanted to know more about her role. She shares how she got into communications, the intensity of working in sports PR and why she loves what she does.

Tell us a little bit about what you do.

I’m the Coordinator of Corporate Communications at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (or MLSE). We own six sports teams in total: the Leafs, the Raptors, TFC, the Toronto Marlies, Raptors 905 and TFC II. We also operate the Air Canada Centre, Ricoh Coliseum and BMO field in Toronto. In addition, we have three restaurants: Real Sports Bar & Grill in Toronto and Ottawa and e11even. My role encompasses day-to-day communications and PR for all of our brands and our teams, surrounding everything that the company does with the exception of the teams’ performances on the court.

We have a separate PR team that handles post-game press conferences, trades and new signings. They are more traditional sports PR, where I’m more involved with brand and partner initiatives that happen outside of the court, the field or the ice. As an example, every year the Leafs do a practice in the community presented by SportChek - because it’s a partnership initiative I would execute the PR by working with SportChek’s team. There’s a lot more of those types of things than most people might think. For example, when DeMar DeRozan launched his book club this year with First Book Canada and BMO, that became something I would handle the media relations for.

The Corporate Communications team also works on longer-term initiatives, like the Raptors ‘We The North’ campaign. We were responsible for trying to get that video on as many broadcasts as possible, the morning it came out. I also run the MLSE PR social media which we’ve been building from the ground up. I’ve been trying to work on making sure we’re announcing things on Twitter at the same time that an email or press release goes out--that’s new to us and isn’t something we’ve done before.

“Despite being an arts kid my entire life I knew I wanted to work in sports. It was always something I was passionate about but couldn’t see myself working in. Sports was never something I thought I could work in, especially as a woman, but PR gave me that option.”

What was your path to your current role like?

It was definitely a whirlwind. Out of high school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I took a year off and when I was ready to explore post-secondary options I looked at a few like advertising, journalism, and PR. I always felt I was a strong communicator both orally and through writing. I applied for all three programs and settled on PR. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t really have a concept of what PR was--I don’t think many people do.

It’s one of those elusive jobs that you could never really describe until you’re in it. We joke around a lot that most people base what they know about PR off of Samantha Jones from Sex in the City, which isn’t even close to what we do [laughs]. In my first year I realized both how much work and how multifaceted the industry was. Despite being an arts kid my entire life I knew I wanted to work in sports. It was always something I was passionate about but couldn’t see myself working in. Sports was never something I thought I could work in, especially as a woman, but PR gave me that option.

In third year we had to do an internship, so I applied at MLSE and started in internal communications. It wasn’t what I wanted to do long term but the end goal was to work at MLSE and that was a jumping off point. Halfway through my internship, there was a change in management that saw my direct manager leave the company. That was super stressful because I had no idea what was going to happen to me, that sounds really selfish, but I was only there for 4 months and didn’t know what I should do next. I took the initiative to start doing a lot of the work that he would have been doing, without knowing what would happen and by the end of my internship my team realized they needed someone to continue carrying out these day-to-day tasks.

That turned into a part-time contract, then slowly I started taking on more responsibilities, like writing community-focused blogs for the Leafs and the Raptors. Based on the writing I did, they started letting me write more, working on external pieces and first drafts of media advisories and press releases. When my current senior director started and evaluated the team, he appreciated my work ethic and my diploma in PR and I continued to work at MLSE through another two full-time contracts. There were several times where my contract was coming to an end and it seemed there wasn’t room for me to stay, so I just kept my head down and kept working hoping for the best.

“We joke around in our department and always say #next, because there’s no time to stop. By the end of one event we’re already thinking about the next big press conference or whatever is coming up next.”

Obviously a lot of your role is communications and being reactive, how do you manage your time so that you can still address the heads down work you need to do?

It can definitely be a challenge, time management is really big for me. We try to zero in on what the priority is at the time and focus on that, whether it be for an hour or a day, and then move onto the next thing. There can be a lot of context switching, we work with so many different teams and brands and the way they all communicate is very different.

It helps that we work on so many amazing things that keep us inspired but it can be really hard to switch gears so frequently. We just prioritize and zero in on what needs to be done at that moment, then we finish it and move onto the next thing. We joke around in our department and always say #next, because there’s no time to stop [laughs]. By the end of one event we’re already thinking about the next big press conference or whatever is coming up next. For example, the day that the Toronto Argonauts announced they were playing at BMO field was the same day the news came out that Mike Babcock was signing in Toronto. We were in the middle of this press conference and were being flooded with emails about Mike Babcock’s press conference the next day. Our minds were already starting to wander to that next thing but we always make sure we’re focusing on the task at hand and then #next. It’s kind of crazy.

What percentage would you say is reactive versus proactive?

It definitely depends on the day. There are some days we are completely reactive, if a story is broken or something of huge interest is happening. So for example, last week the Raptors were chasing their potential 50th win. I was working on having the Starbucks barista Sam Forbes and his manager Chris Ali from the Ellen DeGeneres show coming down to the game so I was zeroed in on that. At the same time though we were getting all these requests from news outlets wanting to figure out a different shot or place that they could do their stand up or interviews for the Raptors 50th win. In terms of percentage, it’s about 50/50 proactive versus reactive, which probably isn’t typical to the PR industry.

A lot of PR is about being proactive and pitching stories and getting news out there, and we do that with our community events and partnerships for sure. But, something can happen and then our whole day is gone and that’s just the nature of the business. It means you stay late sometimes to finish up all the stuff you need to get done. It’s definitely interesting and it always keeps you guessing. I spend a lot of time getting up from my desk and heading downstairs because there's a news outlet outside our building that has a question and I’ll go down to assist them. That's part of the job and why I love it because it's never a dull moment.

“Your demeanor is your work and that’s what people are judging you off of, that’s what your performance is based off of. There’s a lot to be said for being able to do that.”

Do you ever experience burnout working in such a fast-paced environment and having to be turned “on” all the time? How do you handle that?

It has happened before where I’ve worked 16 days in a row without a full day off, just because there’s been so many events. That’s okay with me. When I was in school I was taking full-time classes and working 40 hours a week serving. I would hit that wall of exhaustion a lot and I just kept working through it. I think that prepared me for this role.

It helped me learn to handle that type of stress and exhaustion, because in the service industry your income is directly dependent on how you function after being on your feet for eight hours straight. It’s very similar to my role now, it’s about being in front of people all of the time, and communicating in a respectful, professional and approachable way. You need to exude confidence and positivity, no matter how stressed out you might be. I do find occasionally I’ll hit that wall and I can get a little bit goofy but I can still maintain my composure. Once I do have the opportunity to stop, I don’t want to talk to anyone for a little while [laughs].

Your demeanor is your work and that’s what people are judging you off of, that’s what your performance is based off of. There’s a lot to be said for being able to do that. If you’re working in data entry or in design or any role where it’s you and your computer for the most part, you may have meetings but I feel there’s very few jobs where you literally are your work.

So what does a typical week look like for you?

Each week follows a similar structure. I wake up around 7-7:30 and check my phone and Twitter. In our industry it’s really important to know not just what’s going on in Toronto but in the world, because it directly affects our job and how we do it.

I grab my coffee and then lately I’ve been doing our media clips. We send clips about all of our teams to about 400 people in the company. As of late it’s been my job because we don’t have an intern at the moment. That takes me anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours if it’s a Monday and we’re following news from the past weekend. I consolidate all of that and send it out so that everyone is familiar with what’s being written about our brands and what the news is that day. We try to send them out by 9am.

From there anything can happen, usually I’ll be doing things related to preparing for any appearances we have that week. It could be a morning show in the studio between 6am and 9am, and prepping whoever our talent is for that. Whether it’s a player or management or even sometimes stuff with our dancers to help build hype and get our brands on the air. I could be going in and writing up an advisory or a press release if there’s something coming up. There’s always a lot of meetings as well, we have a weekly meeting for each of our brands. From there we figure out how we can amplify the most recent events or initiatives and then I’ll dive into emails.

Those can be responding to questions or requests for a statement from our media contacts or inquiries about setting up an interview. There's a number of things that we juggle and I try to look at what news is coming out during that week just so I can make sure I'm on top of it for social and make sure that I'm aware of when a press release is coming out. A lot of it is trying to plan. Sometimes our planning gets interrupted but for the most part that's how it breaks down.

“I don’t like disappointing anybody and a lot of the people who are reaching out are contacts that I value and that I’ve built up over my three years at MLSE. It’s hard to say no to them. I think that’s something I’m still learning and it never gets easier but I no longer think I'm making people hate me now [laughs].”

What tools are you using on a daily basis?

Twitter - I use Twitter to help me gauge whether or not I’m going to be successful with something I’m pitching. If I pick up the phone blind and call an assignment desk that’s in the middle of covering something else like the election or another big news story and I’m calling to pitch them something unrelated, I’m damaging my own reputation and credibility. So Twitter helps with that.

Meltwater - This is a media monitoring service that I use every morning to help pull clips. It makes it really easy to compile all the articles for our brands, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of them everyday.

Critical Mention - Meltwater is great for web and print media but Critical Mention is used to pull broadcast footage from events. I’d use it to pull CTVs coverage of when I had Sam and Chris [the Starbucks barista and manager from the Ellen DeGeneres show] at the game and practice for example. I can compile all of the footage from their experience with the Raptors and put it into a report for anyone who needs to see that.

Word & Excel - I write non-stop. We have certain templates that we follow for advisories and press releases that have to consistent across the board for all MLSE materials and it helps to have those saved and just work right off of them in Word. In Excel I have a lot of lists, a lot of RSVP lists, spreadsheets with media information. If I'm doing a media tour I will have times, addresses, and contact information so I have to put that all into a concise format that's easy for everyone to read.

Spotify - There is so much awesome stuff going on in the office that sometimes it can be distracting. I have to write in that environment a lot of the time. I use Spotify non-stop so I can just put on a playlist to focus and just zone out. Primarily when I'm writing I will listen to jazz but sometimes depending on what I'm working on it could be country, it could be rock.

What do you find is the hardest part of what you do?

There’s probably two parts to this. Meeting Sam and Chris was incredible, I spent all night with them on Monday and all day Tuesday and they were so inspiring. Sometimes I wish I could delve a little deeper on projects like that. I’m lucky I get to work on them at all but there isn’t always the time to stop and reflect which can be difficult.

The second thing is that I’m a really friendly and outgoing person, and saying no is always really hard for me. We work so hard to accommodate all the requests that we get but it’s not always possible. I don’t like disappointing anybody and a lot of the people who are reaching out are contacts that I value and that I’ve built up over my three years at MLSE. It’s hard to say no to them. I think that’s something I’m still learning and it never gets easier but I no longer think I'm making people hate me now [laughs].

Personally, I’d love to say yes to everything, but a lot of the time it’s not up to me. The one thing I’ve learned is that when I’m approached either internally or by a media contact, is it’s always helpful to have an email thread. If I get a call that's asking me for a statement I’ll always ask that the request be put it into an email so that I can make sure I get it to the right person.

It's just one of those things. I understand that media are working on a deadline and that’s they’re job. The phone is quickest for them but I’m also doing my job when I’m ensuring that the statement or response comes from the right place.

“Sports are so much bigger than what happens on the court, or the ice, or the field. It brings people together and that’s probably the coolest thing about sports-it’s not just the rules, it’s not just going to a game. It changes lives and I don’t know anything else, other than music maybe, that impacts so many people’s lives like that.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

For any sports fan it’s obviously a dream come true. I may be biased, but the Leafs are the biggest hockey team in Canada and one of the most storied franchises. The Raptors are the only Canadian basketball franchise. It’s incredible to be part of something that’s so much larger than yourself. I don’t think the teams and the players even realize the impact they have on people sometimes in their day-to-day lives.

Realistically, the Leafs winning or losing doesn’t impact the way someone lives, but the inspiration and the feeling it evokes from people is amazing. The fans are so passionate and it’s really cool to be a part of that. I know that no matter where I go in Toronto, without failure I will always see someone in a Leafs hat or a Raptors hoodie.

Who knows, maybe seeing the Raptors visit Sick Kids made someone feel inspired and like they could relate to the team more, or that they appreciate them more. It’s incredible how sports can change lives. The players visit a hospital and give a child a memory they’ll remember for their entire life. I’ve gotten better at not getting emotional at events but afterwards I’ll watch videos of those visits and I’m just a wreck. I can’t believe that this is my job. I think that’s why I do it, special initiatives like that. Sports are so much bigger than what happens on the court, or the ice, or the field. It brings people together and that’s probably the coolest thing about sports-it’s not just the rules, it’s not just going to a game. It changes lives and I don’t know anything else, other than music maybe, that impacts so many people’s lives like that.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Kat Stefankiewicz, she’s the host for the Toronto Raptors. She also hosts a number of third party events and curates content for her own weekly series called Raptors Rundown. She’s hugely involved on social media with her own personal brand and I just think she’s really awesome. She started as a member and then captain of the Raptors Dance Pak and has grown into this inspiring personality who’s so involved with the Raptors. People look to her for a lot of the information about the team and what’s going on.

Brittany Scott, she does Community & Player Relations for the Toronto Raptors. She works with every single player on the team and executes these incredible opportunities every day. She was a big part of what we did with Sam and Chris. A day later she's meeting a teenager with lupus and bringing him to meet with DeMar DeRozan. These are the types of things that she does as her job and she literally changes people’s lives every day.

Jeffrey Garriock, he’s a freelance videographer who used to work at MLSE. He was one of our producers, editors and videographers. About a year and half ago he got a job with a company called G-Adventures where he basically got to travel the world and capture these stunning visuals. He is now working freelance. I’d just love to know how he organizes his life.

Christopher Lund, he’s the community manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He manages all of their social media and for a team where the fans are so involved you can imagine how intense his job is sometimes. He manages to do it all with this great sense of humor and tact that I can't even imagine having under such an intense microscope.