Welcome to Episode 8 of the ESPN PRod Pod, the official podcast of the ESPN Communications Department. The PRod Pod takes you behind ESPN’s unmatched storytelling by introducing the people behind the content – who they are, where they’re from and how they create the magic.
It’s only appropriate the recording of this episode took place on Sept. 7, 2021 – 42 years to the day that ESPN first signed on as a spunky upstart in the fledgling cable industry. Soon thereafter, a bright-eyed, eager St. Bonaventure University graduate, Chris LaPlaca, joined the ESPN PR team in Bristol, Conn., recalling how his first “office” was located in a trailer with a view of a scrap metal shop.
As the network developed its pioneering spirit, LaPlaca was on the ground floor of charting a course for what is now an award-winning, best-in-class PR department that employs strategic tools like websites, social media and, yes, PODCASTS in telling the story of ESPN.
LaPlaca was named ESPN’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications in June 2008. For LaPlaca, as he shares with Communications Associate Producer and PRod Pod host Jon McLeod, “relationships are what matter most” and he has built a boatload of them in over 40 years with ESPN. Additionally, LaPlaca reveals how he leans on his days in the service industry for survival in the corporate world.
In the concluding “Fab 5” segment with ESPN Fan Relations Senior Coordinator Kiana Lowe, LaPlaca’s anecdotes regarding former colleague Stuart Scott and the event held on ESPN’s 40thanniversary are especially poignant discussion topics.
Speaker 3 (00:02):
This is the ESPN PRod Pod.
John McLeod (00:06):
What up everybody. You are listening to the ESPN PRod Pod. I'm your host, John McLeod. This is the podcast that goes behind the scenes on the content you love, the people that create it, and everything in between. Got to give a shout out to my producer, Kiki, who is amazing. Always got to show her love every time I get a chance. And today, we have a pioneer in the PR world, a pioneer in the ESPN world. He's just a phenomenal guy. This guy right here is the reason why I'm at ESPN in the first place. Chris LaPlaca. Bossman, how you doing?
Chris LaPlaca (00:44):
John, I'm doing great. And I remember the first time you and I met, and it was an accidental meeting. And you became a colleague and a [inaudible 00:00:54] one. So I love what you guys are doing with this. You might be going sideways with this particular addition, but I'm happy to be here.
John McLeod (01:01):
No, we're going to have an awesome time today and even better conversation about your time here at ESPN, but more so, the lessons that you've learned and have taught. So I've got a question. The year is [crosstalk 00:01:17] 1980, right? Ronald Reagan is elected president. Sally Ride becomes the first female astronaut. And ESPN lands Chris LaPlaca. What was day one like?
Chris LaPlaca (01:29):
They walked me in the front door. By the way, landing me, that was not an epiphany. I was happy to be there. But I remember walking... Like this was the future of television, cable TV, sports TV, 24 hours a day, and I walked in the front door, and I saw these control rooms and all these buttons and it was great. I said, all right, [inaudible 00:01:55] got it. Then they walked me out the back door into a trailer. That was my office. I had a folding table as my desk, got a cardboard box as my filing cabinet, and across the street was a scrap metal place. And I'm like, "This is the future of cable. Really? Okay, let's go." All I remember is being walked in the front door, walked out the back, walking into a trailer, which was my home for about a year, maybe two. I forgot how long I was in there, but they finally built more buildings.
John McLeod (02:23):
That's incredible because I love the grassroots beginning of it. And September 7th, today, as we celebrate, the day of this recording, we are celebrating the 42nd anniversary, Jackie Robinson 42, of ESPN's birthday. And I can't help but think about the amount of change, amount of transformation that you've witnessed. So now, you've led ESPN PR's efforts for a number of years, but it didn't start out that way. As you were just alluding to, you started out and day one you got into it. What qualities do you think made your superiors confident in you to say, you know what, Chris is the guy to lead us going forward?
Chris LaPlaca (03:17):
Well, I owe a lot to Rosa Gatti who is the true ESPN pioneer. She got here. She was my boss at Brown University. I got a job at Brown right out of college. [inaudible 00:03:26]. And ESPN televised a lot of our events, soccer, which was my fall sport. And then we did the NCAA Ice Hockey Championship, which Rosa hosted, and we hosted at Brown and ESPN televised. And the producer was very impressed with the operation and with her, and Chet Simmons, who was president at the time, hired her. And she got there and said, "Hey, I get a chance to bring somebody, you interested?" And I said, "Sure, let's go." And a week later I joined, July 14th, 1980.
Chris LaPlaca (03:57):
So it wasn't like someone at ESPN said, "This is a guy." It was like, Rosa knew me. I had impressed her in the nine months I was at Brown, and here I was. So I didn't make the jump immediately. I did two things. One, I did a lot of research on, what is this cable TV thing? Do you think it's going to work? And two, I went up to the AD at Brown at the time. I said, "Hey, look, I'm nine months out of college. I get it. I'm new, but I can do this job. Do I have a shot at getting Rosa's job? She's the former head SID at Brown. Now she's at ESPN." And this guy looked me in the eye. He said, "No, we don't think so. You're way too young." I said, "I thought you were going to say that. I handed him my letter of resignation, and I go up to Bristol."
John McLeod (04:45):
Wait a minute. Wow.
Chris LaPlaca (04:47):
You got to see around corners, John. We talk about this all the time. I knew what the answer was going to be, but I had to ask the the question, so I did.
John McLeod (04:57):
That's impressive. Because you leave knowing you have an opportunity, but you kind of get clarity, and you get this kind of disability to move forward. You leave, you arrive at ESPN. It's a number of years. We fast forward. And I believe you are the only person left in the company that has the privilege of advising almost every single president that we've ever had. Has anybody ever spoken to you about that? How do you advise somebody, so many presidents of this company in a leadership role like that?
Chris LaPlaca (05:46):
Well, that's kind of you to put it that way. It's true to some degree, but not fully. When I was just joining the company, I was advised not to go near the president. [crosstalk 00:05:57] What did I know, right? So I did interact with a small group of people, and I did interact with Chet, and Bill Rasmussen, our founder at the time, and they treated me like an equal, which I thought was cool. I wasn't. And I would have direct interactions, and I learned from each one of them. And as time went on, you just keep learning. You keep evolving. Evolution's a big deal to me. You can't stay in one place very long. I had leaders at the time, Rosa and others, who made sure I didn't. You get to a place where you're comfortable, then you think you got it. We got this. Oh, no, no. We're going over in the deep end of the pool. Now you better join us or you're going to get left behind. People made sure that didn't happen to me.
Chris LaPlaca (06:42):
So listen, what was true then is true now. Internally, we have our pulse on what's going on, what people are saying, how they're feeling throughout the organization. Externally, we're the conduit to the external narrative and what people are thinking externally, and those two thought processes intersect largely in our group. What you do after that is you just, when you sit down and you talk to leaders, whether it be the president or leaders of departments, you tell them, listen, if you make this decision, A, B or C could happen or D, E, and F could happen, you're [inaudible 00:07:20]. But here's what you can expect if you make this call, that call, this call, and now everyone's prepared and they're making decisions with eyes wide open.
Chris LaPlaca (07:27):
And as time has gone on, you're a part of that. And [Keon 00:07:33] is a part of that. He was a big part of this podcast, which I'm very proud of, by the way. I love the fact that you guys are continuing to experiment. But as time goes on, that kind of perspective becomes really, really helpful to leaders. Someone asked me this about four years ago, how have you survived through all the different regimes? My answer was simple. It's never been about me. It's always been about us, we, helping the company be successful.
John McLeod (08:04):
As someone who's been a diversity and inclusion champion for decades now, and an equality champion and equity champion for decades.,What do you think needs to happen for us to truly have a truly equal playing field when it comes to employees?
Chris LaPlaca (08:21):
Well, listen, I say the first thing is, is everybody has to understand and recognize their own biases. We all have them. Some of them are conscious. Some of them are unconscious. I know we've done a lot of training around that and stuff I've been involved in has been eyeopening for me. And I think the first thing is to show up recognizing that you have to listen more than speak in that environment and then be authentic.
Chris LaPlaca (08:52):
And so, yeah, there's not a company in this country, perhaps in the world, that isn't dealing with some really difficult topics and some really difficult issues that are emotional, that are real, that are authentic and that need to be addressed. And so, I just feel like, if you can have an honest conversation with somebody, even when you disagree, you both got a little smarter that day, a bond begins to form. It's a little stronger, and you might agree to disagree today, and tomorrow you might get closer to the middle, and you have to be honest about what your faults are. And you have to be honest about when you or the company makes mistakes. You have to learn from them.
Chris LaPlaca (09:45):
You have to be, I think, honest and genuine. Empathy is a theme now you hear about in leadership circles. We have to lead with empathy. It's always been a part of how I've tried to show up just as a human being. But I'm blessed, frankly, with having had wonderful parents. I grew up in a really small town. My dad owned a business. It was an Italian restaurant, and everyone was welcome. You could be the mayor, you could be the janitor at the school, whatever. Everyone, my dad always told me, deserve respect until they prove to you that you shouldn't give it to them, but give it to them and let them prove what have you.
Chris LaPlaca (10:24):
And there was something innate, John, and this is a long answer. And I grew up understanding early on that for my family to be successful for me to have clothes and food and whatever, I needed to make the customers happy. And when you grow up understanding that you are in a service environment in some way, shape or form, you translate that to a corporate environment, where you show up and you're in service to your colleagues. That's great training, and that's how I've tried to show up my whole life.
John McLeod (11:04):
And I'm glad that you brought up the service training because I want to jump back in time a bit and talk about your first job. You had often told this story before, but you were a bartender at how old?
Chris LaPlaca (11:22):
Yeah, I was 16. I was the oldest of four kids, and my dad had his best friend as the bartender. I wasn't legally able to be a bartender, but my sister walked in on this guy one day and he was taking money out of the cash register behind the bar. And my sister said, "Hey, Mister," I won't give his name. "So-and-so, what are you doing?" "Oh, I'm just making some change." My sister is two years younger than me, but she was smart that day and smart every day, often smarter than me, and said, "I don't that's right." That day, I became a bartender. That guy got thrown out. And so you're [inaudible 00:11:59] people behind the bar and different styles and how to deal with crises effectively. Customer's always right, even when they're not, and I learned a lot about human nature behind that bar.
John McLeod (12:16):
You learned so many things at an early age, and those exact lessons that you learned behind the bar is how to use every single day throughout your entire tenure here at ESPN and in life period.
Chris LaPlaca (12:32):
I saw what my mom and my dad were doing, and then I got older and I understood it more. And I played a lot of sports in high school. I did a lot of things. My dad wasn't at every single one of my games. He couldn't. He was running a business. And one day he came to me. I was early days of ESPN. He was proud that I was here, and he lamented that he wasn't at all my games, or he didn't make every... It really had bothered him all those years. And I said to him, "Stop it right there. If I didn't grow up the way I did, if you didn't teach me hard work, respect for others, service oriented, you can't cut corners and how to read a room, and all the other... If I didn't grow up the way I did, I'm not here right now. I wouldn't be successful." And so I'm grateful for the way I grew up, and I'm okay he didn't make all my games. And he got 10 pounds lighter in that moment, and I'll never forget that.
John McLeod (13:37):
Wow, that's a powerful moment. And that's actually leading me into my next question. You're a dad of three beautiful women. And I'm just curious, the first part of the question is, how do you survive in that household?
Chris LaPlaca (13:56):
Again, it's the same way I've survived at ESPN. It's never about me. You just got to get comfortable with that. And once you get there, it's easy. I just learned from them. You have to realize... And listen, my dogs are female. Both dogs are females. We have fish that are probably female. I have no idea. And then we have a leopard gecko, my daughter Lucy has a leopard gecko. The only other male is a lizard. I got no shot, John.
John McLeod (14:26):
I don't know how you survive, but I am honored to talk to you today because you are the only [Man] I know that survives in those kinds of waters.
Chris LaPlaca (14:37):
I've learned a lot, frankly.
John McLeod (14:39):
So in talking about your daughters, and you are somebody that I know personally are a champion for women as leaders, for women going forward in the workspace and life. What are some of those lessons that your dad taught you, that you pass on to your daughters?
Chris LaPlaca (15:03):
Just respect everybody. It comes down to that. And I saw my mom work. I got that from my dad. What I saw from my mom was, listen, she raised four children, running a motel. There were three of us born within four years, and that's a handful. And then you have doorbells ringing, customers need more towels, or someone wants to check in, or the television isn't working in room whatever number. And meanwhile, she's trying to get dinner and have kids eat the dinner, and then she's got to give him baths.
Chris LaPlaca (15:46):
I remember a famous story. My mom's deceased. She won't get mad at me. Hopefully she'll laugh. But she was giving me a bath and the doorbell rang, and she left me alone in the tub. And you would never do that now. We didn't have seat belts [inaudible 00:16:05], we all somehow survived. I got on my bike and rode it all around the town, my parents had no idea where I was, but a small town, you may get away with it. But anyway, I'm like, where the hell is mom? And I get out of the tub, I'm bare ass naked. I opened the door from our living room to where the office is to check people in. I'm standing there, I got nothing on, and my mom was... I said, "Hey, when are we going to finish the bath over here?" And the guy, he was checking in, he laughed his you know what off. But my mom did it. She figured out how to do all of it. Women are amazing. They're unbelievable multi-taskers, and I learned that from my mom.
John McLeod (16:45):
You've navigated every big change this company has ever went through, including Disney's acquisition of ESPN and changing and that transformation. Can you take us back to that day when that happened, when you found out that we were getting purchased by a major company by like Disney?
Chris LaPlaca (17:08):
Yeah. This is one of the few times where I actually was ahead of most people. We were at a Disney management retreat up near Lake George, New York, and Steven Bornstein was the president at the time. And the news had broken that this purchase, CapCities had bought Disney... Excuse me, was buying, and all of CapCities, ESPN, the whole thing. And I remember saying to someone, a couple of people actually, ESPN was, we were who we are today in terms of where we stood in the zeitgeist, but it was a rocket ship, and the pace of growth now in a more mature industry is a little different. But now we're growing with the same acceleration in the digital space and social space and direct to consumer space. So what was then is still now, just a little different because it's bigger.
Chris LaPlaca (18:24):
But I remember saying to someone, it looks like this purchase got made... They wanted to get to ESPN, and everyone looked at me like I was maybe a little nuts, but it turns out I have, when I ever get back to my office, a framed New York Times piece that delved into just that theme.
John McLeod (18:49):
Chris LaPlaca (18:50):
That the gem in this purchase and this massive financial transaction, the gem was ESPN. And that was kind of a really cool day. And we didn't quite know what to expect, but I'm going to just say, if not for Disney, I don't know where we'd be today.
John McLeod (19:12):
Absolutely love that. Amazing culmination there. So, from the early days of acquiring college basketball to now 14 million plus homes for ESPN+, 40 plus years in this industry, what is one memory you will hold near and dear to your heart forever?
Chris LaPlaca (19:37):
There's actually two of them, and they both have a similar theme. One of them is a little weird. It seems odd. I wouldn't say near and dear, I would just say near. And that was when a good pal, Stuart Scott, passed. And I was in the middle. He was a good friend. I coached his daughter in soccer. I saw him as a dad, not just as a [inaudible 00:20:00] guy and got to know him pretty well. And he was good friends with many, many people, but when he passed, I was amongst the group who planned the memorial service we had in Bristol and what have you, and just the vibe in that room that day, it was a brotherhood and a sisterhood and a feeling of, we weren't employees that day. We were friends mourning the loss of another friend.
Chris LaPlaca (20:40):
People who didn't work here anymore came back that day, and it was a reminder to me what I said to you earlier. Yeah, we make deals and we do great games and what have you, and all that stuff is critically important, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the relationships. And I remember sitting in the kids center gym where we did this thinking this was special, and the vibe and the feeling was special because he was.
Chris LaPlaca (21:11):
The second one was just a couple of years ago on our 40th anniversary. And we staged a big celebration that day. And the pinnacle of that perhaps was when Dan Patrick and Mike Tirico and Robin Roberts, my former neighbor when she lived in Farmington, and Bob Ley and Chris Berman and Suzy Kolber all got on a stage, and some of them didn't work here anymore, but they were happy to come back and proud to be there. And they all got a little emotional. And I did too. And I had the same vibe then than I did sitting in the kids center for Stewart's memorial service, which was, how special a group of people is this?
Chris LaPlaca (21:59):
And even when you have all the stress and trials and tribulations and the deadlines and the unfriendly headlines and the crises and the mistakes that get amplified and all that stuff that happened that's difficult and challenging that we all face, at the end of the day, you strip all that away. And what this is really about is the relationships that you have with a lot of special people. And after I'm long gone, those will be the memories that I will continue to cherish, those kinds of things. There's a million other examples. Those are the two that come to mind.
John McLeod (22:39):
That's the end of my questions. I'm going to kick it to Kiana, who's going to come in with the Fab Five.
Speaker 3 (22:44):
Now it's time for the Fab Five.
Chris LaPlaca (22:52):
[crosstalk 00:22:52] Look, Kiana, you can't wait. I know. I know you. So let's go. I'm not afraid.
That's good. Put on a brave face.
Okay. Well let's get started then. If you could eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Chris LaPlaca (23:08):
Any specific kind of pasta or just plain pasta?
Chris LaPlaca (23:18):
No, any kind will do.
What makes you laugh the most?
Chris LaPlaca (23:23):
Stupid sophomore [inaudible 00:23:24]. I get sophisticated jokes. What really makes me laugh is the dumb stuff that's the lowest common denominator. We'll watch a movie, my family, and they snicker, and I'm loud. I break windows. Then they start laughing because I'm laughing as hard. But I can't lie to you, it's the basic, lowest common denominator stuff. Like Home Alone, that movie, we watch it every Christmas. I laugh like the first time I saw it. When those guys get hit by the boards or the buckets of paint or whatever, I just think that stuff's hilarious.
What job would you be terrible at? What job can you think of that you're just like, I would not be great at that?
Chris LaPlaca (24:09):
With that being said, what's one topic you wish that you knew more about?
Chris LaPlaca (24:20):
Frankly, in this moment, I wish I understood better what's happening with the pandemic and just what it is we're facing. It's had such an impact on all of our lives. I have kids going off to school and another daughter who's living outside of Annapolis, and she's dealing with it in her profession, and it's been two years in, sometimes I feel like we still don't know exactly what we're dealing with. And so that's a pretty heavy, topical thing, but I can't read enough about what researchers are saying about what's happening. And the second answer to that would be teenage girls.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Chris LaPlaca (25:14):
Positano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast. It's great. I've been there only twice in my life. I try to get there whenever we go see my family in Sicily, but it's just beautiful, and the people there are great. I would say that the second, you didn't ask me for two, but I've been many times to where my family started, in a small town in north central Sicily called Petralia Soprana, and I've stood outside the place where my grandfather was born and raised, the only one of three brothers to leave, come to America. He had 12 kids, one of them was my dad, and I still have family over there. So I'd probably bounce back and forth between Sicily and then Positano.
Chris LaPlaca (26:01):
I'm trying to teach myself the language. I do a lesson every day, and I can say enough to be dangerous and get my point across, but I'm not yet fluent because you got to be in it to get there, and I'm not every day.
Well, you survived. That's it.
Chris LaPlaca (26:18):
Chris LaPlaca (26:20):
I want everyone to know I did not get the questions in advance. These were all fresh to me.
Of course. I told you, you had this.
John McLeod (26:29):
All right, Chris, we want to thank you so much for being on the ESPN Prod Pod. For myself, for Kiki, and for Chris LaPlaca, who's been here from the beginning and is still rocking out and teaching us lessons, thanks for tuning in, and make sure you like, comment, share, and subscribe to ESPN PR on YouTube. And you can find the ESPN PRod Pod wherever you find your podcasts.