Media Matters

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director

08/23/2010

August not only means a return to the classroom but the preparation for fall sports as well. The weeks leading up to the start of football and other sports’ seasons signal the end of summer and the building of interest and enthusiasm in school athletic programs.

This anticipation is heightened by media coverage of the teams and speculation as to how they might fare in conference competition and even state and national rankings. Coaches and athletic programs can use this opportunity to project a positive image of teams, individuals, and the entire organization if they approach the media in a proper manner.

Respectful - Former Indiana and Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight once said this about sports journalists: “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us move on to greater things.” This and all such putdowns of the media are counterproductive, serving neither the program’s or the individual’s best interests. Contrast that to how the great high school coach Morgan Wootten recommended treating the media in his book Coaching Basketball Successfully: “Demonstrate to the reporters your understanding that they have a job to do, and that you view their job as important.” A little respect in any relationship goes a long ways, and serves as a good starting point in media relations. Similarly, show your regard for your athletes by ensuring that anything you convey about them to the media has already been discussed with them. The media should never be a third-party vehicle for conveying a message to or attempting to motivate an athlete. Do that face to face to keep that coach-athletes relationship strong.

Organized - Take time to identify key points you wish to convey and prioritize them before communicating with the media. Make sure you compose yourself after a competitive event so that your emotions don’t get the best, or worst, of you as you discuss and answer questions about the game. Emotional, off-the-cuff comments rarely serve coaches, athletes, or the program well. So “take 5” to ensure the rational and more objective you is in control to avoid the kind of statements that are regretted the next day, if not immediately after they are made. Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel’s demeanor provides a great model for expressing oneself in a professional manner even after a disappointing performance. Some in the media and public call him boring for his lack of controversial quotes. Better labels for the coach are smart, mature, and composed.

Accessible - Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini recently banned reporters from all Cornhusker practices after being angered by player injury reports by media outlets covering the team. While Pelini admitted to the Associated Press that learning how to deal with the media has been one of his greatest challenges as a head coach, banning coverage is not a good solution. Some coaches restrict access to or even close short portions of practices and allow media to access players at only specified times, and that is a better alternative. But the best approach is to be as available and forthcoming as possible. Media attention is an opportunity to promote the positives about your program. So rather than retract, reach out. Set aside time and invite media to meet with or call you when you are free. Suggest appropriate human interest stories concerning certain team members. Be proactive in getting the message out on your programs’ website, and make sure that those interested in the program know that they will receive frequent online updates about the team and its players. Give aspiring journalists from the school newspaper a chance to interview you and offer reinforcement of their work when it is completed.

Honest – The old saying “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is pretty sage advice when it comes to public pronouncements. By being sincere and forthright you will keep your credibility intact with the media and others. Conversely, even a single lie, half-truth, or word-parsing instance can undermine the trust that you want to build and maintain. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to share everything that’s on your mind or in your game plan. No one is asking you to divulge details of your strategy or private information about your athletes. And, certainly, exercise proper discretion to avoid inappropriate critical evaluations of players, opponents, and officials in a public forum. For, as we all know, some things are better left unsaid. But otherwise opt for open and forthright communication. It’s far more effective and simply the right thing to do.

Classy - How the administration, the coaching staff, and athletes project themselves to the media will create a positive or negative impression that is hard to shake once formed. Encourage players to take speech and public speaking courses and ask a faculty member to help them come across in a clear, positive, and educated manner. Coaches also need to communicate in a classy manner. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy epitomized this approach. And Dungy recently commented that he would never have hired a coach that uses profanity so freely and frequently as New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. Ryan and others that can’t seem to express themselves without four-letter words claim they’re just being themselves, but what they are really being is lazy. Many prominent coaches are known to curse quite often away from the microphones and cameras, but at least make the effort to cleaning up their language for public consumption. That’s the least that should be expected by any employer since a coach is often the face and voice of an athletic program or organization. Better yet, ban blue language from your lexicon in public and opt for a more mature vocabulary that will reflect better on you and your team.

Today more than ever media looks for stories that resonate with communities and fan bases. Given the significance of sport in society you can’t hide, nor should you want to. Present your program proudly, positively, and as widely as possible. Guided by these five principles you have the power to turn media relations into an asset, not a nuisance. Make the decision today to make interactions with media a real plus for your program this year. It might not win you any games, but it will win you the appreciation of the media, those that have interest in the program, and those who participate in it. And that matters more than you might think.