Calm in a crisis: Why Conor McGregor has learned to turn to N.J.’s Karen Kessler

By Tom Bergeron
Warren Township | Apr 1, 2019 at 5:00 am
From our print edition

The phone was blowing up by her bedside.

The emails were arriving from all points of the globe.

The texts were coming rapid-fire.

That’s what happens when you are the so-called “brand police” for one of the most famous athletes in the world. And that athlete has sent something out on Twitter — in the middle of the night — that has people on every continent abuzz.

It happened to Karen Kessler last Monday night into Tuesday morning.

Kessler, the founder and head of Evergreen Partners in Warren Township and a well-respected and highly sought-after crisis communication expert, didn’t get flustered.

She calmly picked up her iPhone and typed out: “You want to talk about the tweet?”

And then she waited for Conor McGregor — the best-known mixed martial arts fighter on the planet — to respond.

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Kessler is best known for helping CEOs of major companies and politicians get through various crises. Most recently, handling #MeToo cases has been a steady source of business.

Confidentiality is a key aspect of her firm; Kessler rarely discusses clients publicly. But, since recent events involving McGregor pushed her into public view, she agreed to discuss some of the background with ROI-NJ.

Kessler said she has worked with a number of athletes and entertainers over the years, but it was a bit of a surprise when she was approached last April about taking a meeting with McGregor.

After all, she didn’t know who he was.

The meeting followed an incident after which McGregor was facing 12 charges and jail time. It led to Kessler being hired to provide guidance during the moment of crisis — and has continued on with lessons about how McGregor can build his brand. And manage more times of crisis.

It has led to a personal relationship that seemingly could only come after years, not months. The two communicate almost daily.

On this occasion, Kessler was responding to the overnight tweet March 26 in which McGregor announced his retirement from the sport.

The tweet had fans everywhere — McGregor has more than 30 million followers on Instagram and 7.5 million followers on Twitter — wanting to know if the man who made nearly $100 million in 2018 was truly walking away from his sport. 

Kessler remained calm.

“Part of the reason that I like what I do — or that I’m genetically wired to do what I do — is that I don’t overreact to any of this,” she said. “Because you can’t.

“My role is to give comfort and calm in a world in which there is very little. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t want to make it appear that the world was ending. It wasn’t. I just wanted to understand. Then I got a call (from McGregor) and I understood.

“And then the second story came out …”

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Paradigm Sports Management
Karen Kessler of Evergreen Partners with her client, MMA star Conor McGregor. ­

Let’s turn back the calendar a year.

In April 2018, Kessler knew very little about MMA, a fast-growing combat sport that combines elements of boxing, wrestling and various forms of martial arts. It has grown to prominence primarily under the guidance of UFC, a promotion company.

“I didn’t know the difference between MMA and UFC,” she said. “They were just a lot of letters that held no significance.

“I didn’t know how they all fit together. I didn’t know the politics or the players of the industry. I didn’t understand the lure of the industry.”

She soon found out.

Kessler got a call from McGregor’s legal team with a request to come to a meeting in New York City. The day before, McGregor had been arrested after a bizarre incident in the bowels of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, following a news conference to promote UFC 223 — a major upcoming fight.

McGregor and his team had attacked a bus of rival MMA fighters. McGregor threw a dolly that smashed a window and injured someone inside.

“I went in to meet with him and his agents and the attorneys,” Kessler said. “We had never met before. It was two hours. I was comfortable working with them, they were comfortable working with me.

“It began as just handling that situation.”

Handling the situation meant handling the media. Kessler made that clear.

“I’m not the lawyers,” she said. “They get full credit for handling the legal case (which ended with charges reduced to a single charge of disorderly conduct and no jail time).

“Our role was to just make sure that the facts were presented correctly, and that the media was treating it for what it was and not what it wasn’t.”

That meant handling the more than 400 media members who came looking for information, blocking New York City traffic in the process.

Kessler said she and her team weren’t flustered.

“I think people think it’s more frenetic in the office than it is,” she said. “It’s not. Having done this for so long, it’s pretty measured.

“I feel a real responsibility to get the story right. And a huge responsibility to never say anything that’s not truthful. That really speaks to who we are and to our relationships with the media.”

The work her team did was noticed.

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Audie Attar is the founder of Paradigm Sports Management, the 10-year old Irvine, California-based firm the former UCLA football player founded around the time he got his MBA from Pepperdine University.

The firm represents basketball and football players, as well as boxers. But its biggest clientele is MMA. In addition to McGregor, Paradigm also represents Cris Cyborg, the biggest female fighter in MMA.

Attar was one of the people responsible for bringing Kessler in after the Brooklyn incident. He quickly realized he would be foolish to let the relationship end.

Attar feels MMA, which most people say started around 1993 but exploded in popularity around the turn of the century, will continue its frenetic climb into the sports landscape. He felt his athletes needed someone who can help prepare them for their entrance into the mainstream.

“This is a fairly new sport,” he said. “It has experienced a boom, really led by the rise of Conor McGregor. But, now, the sport is going global with more promotion and superstars all over the world.

“We brought on Karen because, as an agency, we needed to scale up to keep up with the demand. We needed to make sure we’re providing the highest-level services — and public relations and brand-building happen to be two of those services.”

The fact that Kessler had no experience with MMA — and does not do a lot of international work — was not an issue. In fact, Attar said it was a plus.

“We have been hit up by multinational PR juggernauts and European-based PR firms and sports-specific PR firms,” he said. “MMA is in an emerging market. We are charting the way.

“I didn’t need someone that knows MMA, per se. I needed someone who understands public relations, brand building, crisis management — all the things that I think are applicable across all the different sports and entertainment verticals and even government and politics.”

McGregor’s lawyer, John Geelan, was sold on Kessler and Evergreen Partners before she even got to New York City.

Geelan, a partner at Arnold & Porter, said the initial call to invite her in was enough for him.

“You could just tell from the first three sentences that Karen said over speakerphone,” he said. “Our team knew.

“Even though she wasn’t well versed in the subject matter — in terms of UFC — she immediately grasped what we needed.”

Geelan said Kessler paid off immediately.

“We needed somebody who could dive right in, and that was Karen,” he said. “She not only has been responsive, but also proactive in helping the client with media relations here in the U.S.”

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It would be easy to say Kessler enjoys being in the background.

She didn’t on this recent occasion: The filming of a comedy bit between McGregor and “The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon.

Kessler said she was stunned to discover that her role as an extra in the Irish Bar in New York City that was used for filming placed her in the background, squarely between the two, but visible during the shoot.

Dave Fogarty
“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon and Conor McGregor having some laughs. ­

“I looked like a stalker,” she said with a laugh.

Taking advantage of a seven-minute routine with Fallon is one of the reasons there is room for Kessler on McGregor’s team, whether he fights again or not.

The bit, after all, wasn’t about MMA. It was more of a promotional spot for McGregor’s new whiskey, Proper Twelve. It’s one of two brands McGregor has launched. The other, August McGregor, is a clothing line that fits the profile of the always-dapper fighter.

After McGregor’s brand team secured the spot, Kessler made sure it showed a different side of the fighter.

“NBC’s idea was to interview him and have Jimmy sing Irish music,” she said. “When I told them that Conor would sing, they thought I was kidding, but I knew he would, and he was terrific. 

“I don’t think they understood how passionate a performance Conor would deliver. And then he jumped behind the bar and started serving shots to everyone.”

The bit was a big hit for his brand, Kessler said.

“It humanized him,” she said. “The truth is, he is an incredibly funny guy, very warm, very good family guy. That part wasn’t getting seen. He was just the fighter.”

Kessler calls McGregor a natural when it comes to marketing. 

“He has a gift for it,” she said.

But he needs to learn how to work a new crowd, Kessler said.

“His career is evolving and expanding, it’s not just getting in and out of the octagon,” she said. “When we were getting involved with him, he was launching new businesses, he was walking into new rooms, he was meeting more people.

“He’s now spending more time in the U.S. And he’s being exposed to a lot of things that he probably wasn’t exposed to when he was living in Ireland and just training.”

Kessler is learning how to market globally, too.

“Our eyes are on media all over the world,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we get great press in the U.S., if we’re getting slammed back in Ireland, that’s not going to help because that’s going to matter to his family. If we’re getting slammed in Russia, that’s going to hurt because that’s going to be where his next competitor is from. If we’re getting slammed in South America, that’s going to hurt his business interests there. 

“We can’t just focus on a few markets. We’ve got to focus everywhere.”

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Kessler always says that, in her business, you never know where your next client is going to come from.

Right now, that’s not necessarily the case.

Since picking up McGregor, Evergreen Partners has grabbed a stable of new clients, all of whom participate in MMA.

“We are working with Dillon Danis, who is the four-time world jiu-jitsu champion,” she said, before rattling off Cyborg (whom she praises for her “pink belt fitness” platform that preaches female empowerment), Tony Ferguson (who she says is next in line to be a world champ) and Leon Edwards (who she calls the top British MMA star).

Kessler and Evergreen are now fully immersed in the MMA world. 

“We now have learned a new language,” she said.

“We are helping them in all kinds of ways: From building and promoting their visibility to helping them learn how to handle the media and how to handle setbacks in their careers.”

The secret to working with athletes and celebrities is something Kessler said she learned long ago.

“One of the first things you find: If you’re going to be successful, you can’t be a fan,” she said. “If you approach them like the fan, you’ve lost it. And, yet, that’s how a lot of people approach it.

“What I’ve found is they all are surrounded with a certain circle of people who have a really hard time ever saying, ‘No,’ to them — a certain circle of people who enable behaviors that you don’t agree with. You have to be comfortable and confident enough to say, ‘You can’t do that,’ or, ‘You’ve got to do that.’”

It doesn’t always go over well, Kessler said.

“You get a lot of pushback in the beginning, because it’s not what they’re used to hearing,” she said. “But, after a while, when they realize that the only thing you’re concerned about is their well-being and their brand, the respect kicks in. And I think that’s where I’ve gotten with Conor.”

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Kessler stopped counting hours long ago. 

Paradigm Sports Management
World jiu-jitsu champion Dillon Danis now works with Kessler and her staff.

And now, with McGregor traveling all over the world, she knows she’s on call 24/7. She’s not the only one.

“Conor’s lawyer and Conor’s manager and I are a team,” she said. “We are in touch all the time and we’ve all gotten to know each other very well. We all know each other’s personal lives.

“We all know who’s where. Even if we’re on vacation, we all know how to reach each other. We have a special way of keeping in touch, because something could happen at any second around the world — and it does.”

And while she now calls Conor a good friend and said she hears from him almost daily — “at least five times a week, and that’s when nothing is happening” — she still is surprised by things that happen.

Such was the case when she learned McGregor had announced his retirement.

She answered the question of whether she knew about his announcement with a laugh and a question of her own: “Do you think that 2 in the morning is the ideal time to put out major announcements?”

But McGregor, Kessler said, ultimately makes the call.

“Our role, no matter who it is, is to give our best judgment and advice with the best experience we have,” she said. “Our clients all got to where they got because of their own ability and judgement and smarts, savvy and skill.

“He is the master of his own fate. He made the decision, he felt strongly, he put it out.

“My phone started ringing.”

Shortly after, the phone started ringing for that second reason.

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Hours after McGregor announced his retirement, The New York Times reported McGregor was under investigation for a sexual assault that allegedly took place in December in Ireland. In January, McGregor was arrested, questioned and released. He has not been charged. 

The news set off another firestorm. Kessler’s phone began ringing again, with calls coming in from around the world.

Kessler got her team together and began crafting a statement. At the same time, one of her team members was fielding requests from across the globe with a promise that word would be coming soon. Honesty and transparency are keys to her business, she said.

Soon after, Evergreen released the following statement:

“This story has been circulating for some time and it is unclear why it is being reported now.

“The assumption that the Conor retirement announcement today is related to this rumor is absolutely false.

“Should Conor fight in the future, it must be in an environment where fighters are respected for their value, their skill, their hard work and their dedication to the sport.”

For Kessler, it’s all in a day’s work.

“The media has a job to do and I have a job to do,” she said. “They’ve come to respect that I do take it very seriously. I’m not going to give them something that they can’t use. Of what value is that in the world? That doesn’t help. So, instead, I’d rather say, ‘Give me an extra 10 minutes so I can get you something you can use.’

“I don’t ever want to not return a phone call,” she said. “I don’t ever want to say, ‘No comment.’”