Popkey's position evolves as the Packers do
GREEN BAY – Big changes were afoot when Aaron Popkey joined the Green Bay Packers and they haven't stopped since.
The last game the De Pere native attended as a fan was in 1992 against Cincinnati when Brett Favre took over as the Packers’ No. 1 quarterback. He joined the team as a public relations intern just when the Packers began experiencing dramatic growth on and off the field.
In his 24th year with the organization, Popkey is chief spokesman and director of public affairs, a relatively new position that has Popkey representing the Packers in the community, such as at government meetings and on the boards of community organizations, and coordinating requests from the media and the public. After President and CEO Mark Murphy, he is the non-football face of the Packers.
“Mark (Murphy) is our ultimate person, but he can’t be everywhere at once,” Popkey said.
Popkey is a graduate of Abbot Pennings High School and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied broadcast public relations. He interned for three years with the Packers beginning in 1993 before former PR director Lee Remmel hired him full time.
Popkey initially supported football operations, writing press releases and working with coaches and players on media requests and PR, but his position changed as the organization evolved, especially since the 2003 renovation of Lambeau Field that made the stadium a year-round operation.
He traveled a lot, doing advance work in other NFL cities in the days before the internet simplified that process. For five years he was the team’s travel coordinator when Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman were head coaches.
“It really opened your eyes to the big machine that goes into making these games happen,” he said of his tenure as travel coordinator.
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Popkey's transition into non-football operations — the team’s public relations apparatus now includes football and non-football units — was the result of Lambeau Field's expansion and a belief that the team was not getting its message across about its community involvement. About 10 years ago, he moved out of the football side altogether.
"We had everything going on, but we didn't necessarily tell that story," Popkey said. "Through that process, we found out that while the community knew certainly of the organization and what we did, it was primarily football. We were doing more and more non-football stuff, just promoting all the other things going on here."
The team claimed a charitable impact of $6.5 million in 2015. It is developing the 35-acre Titletown District commercial/residential/recreational project near Lambeau Field, sponsors a mentor-protege program for small businesses and is participates in numerous other events.
Popkey is involved in such organizations as the chamber of commerce, Advance, Live 54218, Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, Bellin Health Foundation and Notre Dame High School, some of it on behalf of the team and some because of personal interest.
“This organization received all this support from the community through all these years and now for the organization to be in a position to impact things in a very positive way is wonderful,” Popkey said. “To be in a position to influence decisions where to support and how much to support and how to support, that’s really fulfilling.”
The team's First Downs for Trees program, which every year donates trees to local municipalities, was an idea of Popkey's to help the team reduce its carbon footprint. Last year it donated 490 trees to 19 Brown County entities.
A wide range of requests, from seeking information to support for organizations and causes, comes to the Packers from all over the world because of the team's broad and loyal following. All of those requests are not decided by Public Affairs, but it's often the first point of contact.
That team loyalty, and the emotion that goes with it, is a double-edged sword, never more apparent than when Brett Favre retired and un-retired in 2008, then was traded to the New York Jets. Packers fans were agitated on both sides of the issue.
"You see those things all the time, an emotion involved with whatever stories are out there," Popkey said. "It's just a heightened situation with Packers fans and their enthusiasm."
Popkey learned much from Remmel, who he worked for, and current Packers historian Cliff Christl, who works for Popkey. He provides some of the institutional knowledge within the Packers, who've employed an increasing number of newcomers as the organization grew, especially in areas requiring certain expertise, such as marketing, finance, legal, and dare it be said, CEO. Murphy expects everyone to understand the Packers unique place in the community.
"Of course, you're brought in because you have a certain expertise and to be able to make decisions," Popkey said. "Every organization needs to evolve and change. That's the benefit of bringing in people from the outside, too, because they bring their experiences that have had success elsewhere. In a dynamic industry such as ours, you need that."
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