Public Relations: Athletes Need to Focus Messages Too: Communications
While watching the summer Olympics one year, I saw athletic triumphs, exciting interviews, and…. a handful of embarrassing encounters with the media. A losing swimmer harshly criticized the winner and later retracted her inflammatory words. A gymnast reeled off criticisms she will regret. Interviewers flummoxed athletes with questions so off-the-wall that any good answer would have been a victory.
From NASCAR to NBA to NFL to NCAA to scholastics, sports interviews sometimes disappoint.
Coaches fail too, especially when they lambaste their own team or specific players. What a missed opportunity! After all, you can make points with an audience as well as on the field, court, or track; and fan support may be the ultimate arbiter of a player and a team’s fate.
As a lifelong weekend jock who does not like to play poorly, I have some appreciation for how the passions of victory and defeat make it difficult to talk thoughtfully. Win and “you’re the best”. Lose and – well – “you’re a loser.” It is not easy being humble when you feel superior or congenial when you feel second-rate. Imagine a professional athlete trying to speak sanely when her reputation might be at stake. Sport is business. So, let me tailor my media training principles to help athletes take better advantage of moments in the media sun. These should be doable in your head and on the spot.
1. Prepare one or two key messages – Top performers never wing it with media interviews. If you don’t know where you are going you will wind up someplace else. You just react to reporters. Having messages to convey puts you on the offense and gives you something constructive to offer regardless the interviewer’s questions. So, before talking to a reporter, pause, and choose one or two comments to make.
2. Talk about how you feel – The audience loves passion, reporters quote it, so let her rip. Spectators can relate to the player’s emotion even if they don’t understand the sport itself. Feeling disappointed? Say so. Ecstatic? Show it. As long as you don’t violate step #6, enthusiasm communicates. To see how often journalists gravitate toward sentiment, monitor media reports. Feelings connect. Share yours.
3. Talk about what you learned – If you struggle to express your feelings, then focus on the strategies and tactics of the competition. What worked, what did not, and why. That will get you outside of yourself. Talking of lessons learned will you give you a conversational safe haven if you are unusually angry, upset, or defensive. Remember that no matter how rotten you feel, the greatest education comes from setbacks and mistakes, not success.
4. Satisfy and steer the questions – To maintain credibility, you must answer questions, but you don’t have to dwell on them. Anticipate worst case questions and answer them in your head. Do it while deciding your key messages. Then, during the interview, you can answer (satisfy) painful questions succinctly, and direct (steer) the conversation toward your messages. To steer, employ bridging phrases like “the important thing is,” “the critical issue is,” “what I most want to say is,” “what I (we) have to do is” to transition to your key messages. Sample Question: “Why did you fumble the ball so often?” Answer: “I was concentrating more on running than holding on to the ball (satisfy), but the important thing now is (steer) that I am going to train harder to maintain possession.”
5. Big mouth? Blame it on the nature of sport. If, in spite of all, you say the wrong thing, then apologize as soon as possible and blame it on the heat of the moment, the intense competition, the fury, the labor, the emotion of it all. You lost it and you apologize. It happens to the best of us.
6. Be gracious – in victory and defeat – Be a class act! When you win, respect the loser. When you lose, honor the winner. Despite how high or how low you feel you will never regret being gracious. Sports media interviews are not a zero sum game. Don’t blame others. Take responsibility for your own actions. If you play on a team and win, credit the joint effort. If you lose, talk about your personal performance. Support the team. Step forward and be a leader.
If events move too fast for you to develop key messages or answers, remember this step above all others. Be gracious, be a class act, and you should do well. Practice these steps in real life or through media training. Real life is best. Then win or lose, you can ennoble your sport and yourself, and help the rest of us enjoy the game that much more.