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From AJR,   June/July 2010

Speaking for BP   

A former Alabama sports columnist talks about his move from journalism to representing the oil giant in the wake of the mammoth Gulf spill.

By Adam Kerlin
Adam Kerlin is an AJR editorial assistant.     

There aren't many things more important to Alabamians than football. Some even equate it to religion.

In contrast, it's hard to find something residents of the Gulf Coast state hate more than the BP oil disaster, which has spewed record-breaking amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ray Melick understands both positions. For 27 years he worked as a sports reporter and columnist, covering major college football and a mix of other sports across the state. He left journalism this summer to start work with the Bloom Group, a public relations company handling media duties for BP's disaster response effort.

Melick's move to PR was rather abrupt and minimally calculated. His initial plan after taking a buyout and leaving the Birmingham News in May was to move with his wife and three children to St. Louis, where he hoped to find a job doing freelance work on college sports.

"Fortunately, I had a pretty good reputation," Melick says. "I thought I would do just fine freelancing in college sports."

About a month after Melick left the paper, Allen Sanderson, a representative of the Bloom Group, approached the columnist . Sanderson hoped Melick could connect the company with a journalist in the region who would be a good fit for its temporary media relations stint with BP. But it wasn't long before Sanderson suggested that Melick apply and, within two days of sending in his resume, he was headed to Mobile with his family.

Melick, 54, admits to looking outside of sports journalism when considering his next step after leaving the News. But he certainly didn't anticipate representing BP as his next career move. He wanted his next position to be "sports related," but the offer from the Bloom Group presented him with an opportunity for a new experience that he felt he couldn't turn down.

Of course Melick hardly invented the move from journalism to PR. But the specifics of his new gig drew flak from John Archibald, a Birmingham News metro columnist who worked with Melick at the paper. In a column about the BP public relations "spin machine," Archibald wrote, "Ray's doing a good job for BP. So he's...­dead to me." Archibald says he isn't necessarily opposed to the notion of journalists going into PR, especially given the current economic landscape, but he found Melick's move to be especially disconcerting because of the BP link.

Readers responded negatively to the stiff criticism by e-mail, in person and over the phone. Archibald, in retrospect, admits his column was a little harsh. But he believes that journalism is a calling. Archibald says that if it were "just a job," career changes wouldn't be a big deal. He says he's disappointed by the growing number of quality reporters who put down their notepads and enter media relations.

"I do think that he has done well at it," Archibald says. "He has a 'good guy' reputation. It's perfect for [BP] to pick someone that people can relate to."

Birmingham News Editor Tom Scarritt declined to comment on Melick's move, saying he didn't know much about what Melick was up to since he had left the paper.

Although Melick was not hesitant to take his job with the Bloom Group despite the BP connection, he acknowledges it might have fueled some controversy. There has been criticism on fan blogs and some skepticism from colleagues in regards to the nature of his move, but that doesn't faze him. "Some of them thought I was a shill anyway," says Melick, referring to Alabama sports fans who criticized him for, in their view, favoring one team over another at points in his career. "I guess I'm just a shill again."

Over the course of his sports journalism career, Melick covered a handful of college programs across the state. His most extensive stint, however, came as the beat writer covering the Alabama Crimson Tide athletic program for 15 years before becoming a columnist.

Robert White, a sports journalist and author in Birmingham, had Melick as a football coach when he was growing up. He says he respects Melick's decision. "I thought he did a great job as a coach," White says. "He was a great guy who was very knowledgeable about what he was talking about.

"You've got to make a living. If the best way to do that is for a journalist to go to PR, that's fine."

White, having also worked in Alabama's relentless sports journalism world, says Melick's lifetime of experience in the field would lend itself to the demands of his current PR job. "No doubt [sports reporting] is 365 days here," White says. "There's never a day off for a lot of people. If it's not football season it's recruiting, spring practice or more recruiting."

Melick says his new job, which like journalism features an atypical workweek, often has him working 12 days straight between breaks. And although it's demanding, he believes the skills he acquired as a journalist have eased his transition. Melick believes relating to people in the news industry--knowing deadlines and the dynamics of information gathering--has helped form a good working relationship with newspapers across Alabama.

"The main thing is that the media I am dealing with knows me," he says. "They know I know what they do, and I came into this corporate environment trying to make it more open, which has been beneficial."