As director of media relations at Navy Pier, one of the Midwest’s top destinations, Payal Patel has been recognized by peers as a “rising star.”
She’s a regular on Chicago’s airwaves and recently graced the cover of the city’s fashionable Splash magazine.
Graduating into a recession-wracked market in sports broadcasting, however, she took a path from Diederich College of Comm to career that was far from easy.
Stuck with purely short- term broadcast gigs, she fell back on her second major, public relations, and took a job publicizing the fledgling Chicago Soul professional indoor soccer team.
“I was the team’s only PR person. I had to teach myself as I went,” she says. Soon she found herself managing a full-blown crisis, sparked when a Soul player jumped into the stands and chased a visiting fan.
The episode frightened even home fans, but there were layers to the story, including the string of racist slurs the player, a Nigerian immigrant, had endured from the fan.
Convincing the team’s owner that ducking the media would leave the issue festering, Patel prepared the player to deliver a nuanced message, an apology and a heartfelt sharing of his encounter with bigotry.
“He was full of raw emotion as he talked to the media,” Patel remembers. “It turned into an uplifting story about discrimination in sports.”
A 33 percent attendance spike at the next game confirmed Patel’s professional instincts and faith that today’s disaster can be tomorrow’s teachable moment.
The uplift was fleeting, however. The Soul folded and subsequent PR roles — for the Chicago Fire outdoor soccer team and the local chapter of the NFL Players Association — didn’t provide enough security to justify a move from her parents’ suburban home.
Then her fortunes started to turn around. Her hiring at Navy Pier three years ago brought a new sense of arrival and responsibility for a now three-person team.
At Navy Pier, Patel has the opportunity to work with another Marquette alumna, president and CEO Marilynn Kelly Gardner, Jour ’88, who oversees Chicago’s top tourist destination.
Navy Pier’s caretaker
Marilynn Kelly Gardner, Jour ’88, oversees Chicago’s top tourist destination
Although locals sometimes write off the pier as a place where tourists ride a big Ferris wheel, Patel relishes reintroducing them to a renovated venue that pulses with life from free morning yoga to after-work happy hour, live theatre shows and complimentary quinceañera celebrations.
“Navy Pier is one of the few attractions in Chicago where there’s no entry fee,” she said. “With these free programs, communities that don’t expect to find this place accessible can now do so.”
Patel’s spirit of giving back extends to making meals for the hungry, fundraising for libraries in developing countries and accepting anytime former professors invite her to speak to current students. Last year, she worked with Dr. Gee Ekachai’s campaigns class with Navy Pier as their client.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without my experience at Marquette,” she said. “So I’m happy to go back and share what I’ve gone through and how I’ve gotten where I am.”
Originally published in Marquette Comm Magazine 2018. Read more from the magazine: Marquette alumnae open up about their careers in sports journalism.