Public Relations Lessons from Steelers RB James Conner

If you don’t know James Conner’s story by now, you should.

Even if you aren’t a football fan or don’t enjoy sports in general, his journey is as inspirational as they come.

James Conner, an Erie, Pennsylvania, native finished his true freshman season in 2013 at the University of Pittsburgh by leading the Panthers in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.

In 2014, during his sophomore season, he continued to impress, rushing for 1,765 yards, the ACC’s season high, and setting the ACC record for rushing touchdowns. He was named a first-team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year.

Things took a turn for Conner at the start of his junior season when he tore his MCL during Pitt’s season opener causing him to miss the rest of the season.

While in rehab for his knee, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He spent the offseason undergoing 12 rounds of chemotherapy, practicing in a surgical mask when his strength and stamina allowed.

After months of treatment, Conner received a clean bill of health in May 2016. Pitt fans, coaches and teammates rallied around him as he returned to the field for the 2016 season. After yet another outstanding season, Conner announced that he would not return to Pitt for his senior season and would instead enter the NFL Draft.

Projected to be a fifth round draft pick at best, Conner defied odds once again when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round, 105th overall.

So what does one of the newest Pittsburgh Steelers have to do with public relations? Here are three reasons future practitioners should take notes from James Conner:

Photo courtesy @JamesConner_

Providing inspiration publicly.

“I choose not to fear cancer…I will play football again,” a tearful James Conner told reporters in a statement just after his diagnosis in 2015. Countless individuals, particularly those afflicted by cancer, have been moved by Conner’s fight and he has taken the time to meet and motivate many of them.

Use of social media.

Conner used social media to communicate with fans during many of the significant points in his life, making us all feel like we were part of his journey. He announced via Twitter that he had received a clean bill of health and later that he had decided to enter the draft. Conner has remained not only professional but personable and inspirational on social media.

Photo courtesy of @ChildrensPgh

Doing good in his community.

Even before his diagnosis, Conner could often be found at children’s hospitals in both Pittsburgh and Erie, visiting patients and gifting them his game-worn gloves to inspire them to keep fighting. Since his own cancer battle, he has visited and encouraged dozens more people battling the vicious disease. Pittsburgh radio host Colin Dunlap, whose daughter is currently fighting leukemia, perhaps depicted Conner best when he wrote, “He gave her the jersey off his back, he gave her a signed picture imploring her to fight hard, he gave her—probably most of all—a tangible role model who isn’t just talking about it, but has lived the struggle.”


Maura Fenske is a senior public relations major with a journalism minor. She serves as the chapter president for the Waynesburg University Public Relations Student Society of America Chapter and as an account specialist for student-run firm Red Brick Communications. She also serves as the copy editor  for FORUM and has written for Waynesburg University’s award-winning student newspaper “The Yellow Jacket.” Maura hopes to combine her passion for public relations, writing and sports in her future career and plans to someday own a golden retriever named Rooney. Follow her on Twitter at @maurafenske and visit her LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *