When to learn,
when to lead,
when to sit back
and let ‘em shine
While the thrill of the Olympics is now over for the majority of us, there are the professionals who work tirelessly the other three years in between the games to support the athletes and the programs that are grooming our next generation of stars. Mimi McKinnis is one of them. Currently a Communications Manager for U.S. Figure Skating, she grew up in the sport, studied journalism and sports management, and after graduating, landed an internship at the organization.
Mimi has been to two winter Olympic games, Sochi and Pyeongchang. She shared with us what she’s learned from those experiences, as well as the importance of her role in engaging new skaters and fans through the sport’s grassroots programs.
KK| What was your experience like at the Olympics?
MM| It’s nice because everyone is coming to us, but it’s a lot to handle. We have about 14 athletes on the team, and those athletes are there for the biggest competition of their career. But there are several media outlets that want access to the athletes, so that’s something that we have to manage to allow them to gain that press without detracting from what they’re there to do.
KK| What’s it look like when it’s not an Olympic year?
MM| It’s definitely a different process. It’s more proactive because we always want to take the excitement from the Olympic year and bring it forward to keep fans engaged and not have them drop off the radar until the next one.
From my angle, it’s about transitioning those fans into skaters. Taking “I loved watching skating at the Olympics and now I want to try it,” or “I want my child involved in the sport because of the life lessons that you learn,” and trying to get that going.
The Olympic season, it’s just brace yourselves, and all hands on deck.
KK| What are some of the ways you engage fans who aren't necessarily skaters?
MM| Our team has done an amazing job this year not just publicizing the skating, but also each athlete and their story. We did long-form interviews and videos so people could get to know who the athletes are, so you're not just watching one performance, you become invested in the skaters’ journeys.
And in a similar approach, for our grassroots skating program, Learn to Skate USA, we made videos on how to watch skating. The goals of those were how to watch the sport and not necessarily how to take your first steps on ice. We want to get them interested in the sport long-term and foster a lifelong love of it, not just a temporary infatuation every four years.
KK| What were some of the differences you noticed as a communications professional between Sochi and Pyeongchang?
MM| Over the last four years, having a digital presence has really blown up. Not only have we had to grow to keep up with that—we now have the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone page, a blog, all these other different ways to keep people engaged with us throughout the games on social media—but also the number of people following the games on social media was such a huge difference from Sochi. A press release will always be a timeless tool, but being able to reach people in those fashions—it’s just a different way of communicating.
KK| You have control of the social media efforts of the organization, but how do you manage the athletes and their social media outreach?
MM| It’s a slippery slope, that’s for sure! Obviously we want to showcase our athletes’ personalities and we’ve done so much to highlight who they are as a person. We don’t want to say, “don’t do this, don’t do that.” We want the athletes to be themselves and we want their personalities to shine, and social media is such a great way to connect even if it’s them posting a picture of their dog or their dinner.
We have incorporated media training for the athletes in our High Performance camp each summer, mostly to prepare them for questions that may get thrown their way that season. For example, in an election year, telling them you might get asked about this, not to tell them what to say, but to prepare them for it so the first time they hear the question isn’t with a microphone and camera in their face. Then have time to prepare their thoughts and figure out if they want to tackle the issue. If they do, here are the possible outcomes and how to be prepared for that as well.
KK| What was the coolest element of this job so far?
MM| I grew up skating, so the coolest part about it is getting to witness the history. I get to see these moments happen. Like in 2014, seeing Meryl Davis and Charlie White win the Olympic gold medal in ice dance, the first American ice dance team to win in the Olympics. And it wasn’t just because I’ve known them for most of my life, but seeing such a pivotal moment for my sport. Then in Pyeongchang, there were so many other firsts like Mirai Nagasu landing the first triple Axel by an American woman, Vincent Zhou did the first quad Lutz, or Alexa and Chris Knierim did the first quad twist.
The most unexpected part is that ice is slippery and you just don’t know what’s going to happen. You can have the best-laid communication plan there is but you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Sometimes you witness history and sometimes you don’t, and it’s very unexpected ...anything can happen.
KK| What have you learned from this position?
MM| I’ve really learned the value of being able to work with an amazing team. We're growing and evolving and we all bring something different to the table. One team member comes from the newspaper industry, one is from