Communication Gaffes Can Derail Sports Careers, So Don’t Wing It

Today’s guest columnist is Barry Watkins, CEO of Clairvoyant Media Strategies.

When I start any training session—whether for a high-profile coach, superstar athlete, on-air television personality, general manager, CEO or member of a corporate staff—I often say the same thing: You would never think about doing your job without ensuring you’re fully prepared for what’s in front of you. And yet, time and again, many people continue to wing it when it comes to one of the few areas that can immediately derail projects, reputations, even careers—how they communicate with the media, the public and even their own employees.

There are countless examples showing how this approach can go wrong, and while some of the most noteworthy issues come from sports, lack of preparedness impacts anyone, across any industry. Houston Astros’ owner Jim Crane made a horrible situation worse when he met the press to discuss the team’s infamous cheating scandal. Longtime president of the Seattle Mariners Kevin Mather resigned after an appearance at a Rotary Club, where he made comments he would never have made to the press. NBC broadcaster Jeremy Roenick appeared on Barstool Sports and lost his job after saying things he wouldn’t have thought of offering on-air. Former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey set off an international incident with a tweet. I could go on.

While each topic may be different, every one of these examples has certain things in common. Most of these individuals were very accomplished at their day jobs and took their work and responsibilities seriously. They didn’t intend to create controversies, excuse bad behavior, insult people or lose their jobs. And they believed they had the skills, information and relationships to manage the circumstances they faced. In retrospect, they were wrong.

Given today’s 24/7, social media-driven environment, where every comment has the potential to become a global phenomenon and every issue seems to demand an instant reaction, professional training, where you gain the tools you need to stay in control of what you say and how you say it, has never been more important. In fact, it should be standard operating procedure for anyone who speaks to the media, has a public-facing position, or communicates with employees, period.

Think of a few scenarios.

—A baseball team hires a new manager. Did you know he or she will have approximately 400 mandatory media availabilities a year? There may be no one better on the planet at the X’s and O’s of game strategy, but has anyone prepared them to be the team’s most visible spokesperson?

—Most owners, team presidents and executives, general managers and broadcasters also speak on behalf of their organization—to fans, employees, sponsors or media—sometimes on a daily basis. They are experts at their businesses. But can you take the chance they’re savvy enough to handle a slump, personnel issue, unruly fans or an off-the-field controversy—every single time?

—Your company has lower-than-expected earnings. Does your president, CEO or CFO know how to tell your story? Stress long-term positives while blunting short-term negatives to analysts, media or stockholders?

—Your company has a major issue or controversial announcement. Is every facet of your organization from your executive team to the sales staff in sync on how you want to present your narrative? What about public-facing employees, such as your sales, customer or ticketing force? In today’s world, every interaction is ripe to be exploited on social media, which is usually not complimentary. No one would ever play a game without practicing. The same holds true for anyone who interacts with your business’ most important constituencies.

So how does professional training work and most important, what does it do?

I’ll start with what it’s not. It’s not passive or conceptual. It’s specific and practical about the particulars of your own situation, incorporating real world examples from your industry and beyond. It’s not about being scared, defensive or tentative. It’s about becoming fully prepared to not only participate, but control a process that can be enormously beneficial to you or your company, without getting tripped up by common and avoidable pitfalls. Through review, coaching and practice, you’ll internalize specific, actionable tools to help you become effective in every interaction. You’ll review the best style and presentation, while learning how to define your message and answer the question, “What do I want my headline to be?” You’ll actively practice how to deliver your message most persuasively, incorporating the most powerful techniques and tools to help you bridge or block questions that might trip you up. And you’ll study common pitfalls and go in-depth on both the value and dangers of social media.

Professional training is a specialty. While many organizations have strong communications staff to prepare their spokespeople for specific opportunities, they are often juggling a number of other responsibilities. Don’t wing it. This is one area where it’s worth finding experts and dedicating a few hours of your time. Professional training will give you the confidence and tools necessary to deliver your message effectively, build your brand, elevate your cause or promote your charity work. And it could save you and your organization a whole heap of trouble.

Watkins has 40 years of communications experience, including 35 years at the Madison Square Garden Company, where he led all aspects of the company’s public strategy. Since 2018 he’s been CEO of Clairvoyant Media Strategies, working with leading businesses, brands, executives and talent to help effectively deliver messages across several platforms.