From Sports Fan to PR Enthusiast, His Passion Translates
If there were an award for biggest sports fan at Zen Media, it would definitely go to Oliver Hays, our Director of Media Relations. He’s been into sports since before he could read—and we’re not at all exaggerating here.
Hays was four years old when his mom first handed him the sports page in the Buffalo News. He loved numbers, and it started innocently enough with him looking at all the baseball box scores—then it turned into an all-out obsession.
“I was consuming as much sports news and information as possible,” he says. “I would get home from school and wait by the door for the paper, like a dog waiting for the mail.”
And his fandom hasn’t wavered. Since he moved back home to Buffalo in 2008, he has only missed six Buffalo Bills home games—three of which are directly related to his daughter being born, which is completely understandable. “It takes a LOT for me to not go to a game,” he continues. “We’ve had three home playoff games in the last two years (including two with very limited COVID-related capacity), and I’ve been to all of those.”
While Hays can go on and on about his love of sports—and for the Buffalo Bills, in particular—he’s been involved in the media side of things in one way or another since he was 14. In high school, he wrote restaurant reviews for the Buffalo News. Later, he went to the University of Connecticut as a double major—journalism and political science—with the ultimate goal of working for ESPN.
And he did, for four years. But Bristol, CT—where ESPN is based—was far enough from family for Hays to decide to make a career change and be closer to home. While he thought he wanted a job that would let him work in sports, he didn’t like the idea of working nights, weekends, and holidays—which is typically required of those in the TV industry. He wanted to have what we like to call a work/life/sports balance, and being in the sports industry gave him less of an opportunity to be a spectator.
So Hays returned back home to Buffalo and got a job as a communications specialist at a regional bank—and that’s where his path in the PR world began. Fortunately, working on the other side of the media table worked out just fine.
Hays found that he enjoyed working directly with the media—he had always possessed a passion for storytelling. Helping craft engaging stories and messages for his companies and clients seemed to be a natural career transition.
He quickly moved up the ranks, going from specialist to manager, spending more than a decade at some of the best companies and agencies in the city. But when his daughter was born, he knew he wanted to make a change from an office environment to WFH.
“In February 2020, I talked to my cousin who is a recruiter and asked if there were any PR/marketing firms that would allow me to work from home, with occasional travel,” he says. “Two weeks later, the world shut down, EVERYONE worked from home, and I put that idea on hold, given the global uncertainty.
“A little more than a year later, though, I got a remote job with a PR firm based in San Francisco, and four months after that, Zen reached out with the incredible opportunity to build a team. I couldn’t turn it down.”
Now, Hays manages a team of nine, a combination of PR coordinators, PR managers, an intern, and an associate director. And he feels as connected to his Zen team and peers as he has to a lot of his in-office counterparts.
“For a totally virtual agency, the level of collaboration I see on a daily basis is amazing,” Hays says. “I have been in-house and at agencies with physical locations, and I can say that without question, the Zen team is top tier when it comes to bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing expertise and best practices that benefit our clients.”
He isn’t kidding; in a team of more than 60 employees, the Zen team interacts together on a daily basis, and it shows on client calls. “There has not been one interaction at Zen where I think, ‘Boy, I’m dreading meeting with this person,’ he admits. “Everyone wants to help, everyone is collaborative, and it’s just an incredible work environment of talented, professional people.”
While Hays oversees all PR strategy for Zen clients, he also works closely with his team to identify story ideas, media outlets, and trends where our clients possess expertise. And when his team faces a test, he puts things in perspective for them.
“When my team faces a challenging situation,” he says, “I always say, ‘What are we talking about?’ We are doing PR, which absolutely is important in the scheme of businesses—every successful business should be doing PR in some way. That said, we should take our work seriously (and we do!), but it should not totally consume us when something doesn’t go our way. I think keeping that in perspective even when things seem insurmountable is very important.”
His favorite part about working for Zen, apart from the people, of course? “My daughter is in kindergarten, two blocks from my house,” he says. “I can drop her off, pick her up, and be downstairs for dinner with her every day. If I still worked in an office, there’s no way I’d be able to do all of that. When she was little, I’d get home closer to 6 pm and walk in as she was eating dinner at the kitchen table already. We work hard, but that work/life balance is impossible without a supportive company culture.”
It’s this supportive company culture that lets Hays still have time to enjoy sports and occasionally travel with his family. But an ideal day? “An ideal day is grabbing coffee and a bagel and reading/doing puzzles/playing with LEGOs with my daughter,” he says. “It doesn’t take much for us to have fun together.”
Whether he’s in a stadium, behind a computer screen, brainstorming the next great media pitch, or spending time with loved ones, Hays clearly has passion. And it’s this passion that gives him zen—and translates to the passion he has for our clients.