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Transparency and media management: It’s not always clear-cut

Being open and honest is always the best policy – except when it isn’t. And when it comes to media management in professional sport, that can be quite often.

For almost three years, Emirates Team New Zealand sat on a secret.

A new pedal-powered grinding set-up would be used on their America’s Cup boat, with ‘cyclors’ replacing the traditional shoulder-burning system. The theory was that this would help generate more hydraulic pressure – and, as a result, the Kiwis would sail smoothly on foils, above the waters of Bermuda, more often than their rivals. And so it proved, with Team NZ winning the America’s Cup comfortably over Oracle Team USA a couple of months back.

“You’re not being devious”, said Team NZ’s head of media Hamish Hooper, “but there are secrets that need to be kept so that you can give yourself as much chance as you can on the water.”

The balancing act for Team NZ was to keep things secret for as long as possible –  to avoid copycat behaviour – while still giving themselves sufficient time for testing. And in the big business, high-tech world of America’s Cup sailing, most people would say that strategy was absolutely fair enough.

But it’s one of many examples where openness and honesty with the media can be in direct conflict with the wider goals of your team.

You’ll regularly see teams trying to fudge the announcement of their starting line-up, for instance. Why? Some coaches believe there’s a benefit in the opposition not being too sure who is playing where. Or they think the late inclusion of a star player returning from injury will be a psychological blow to their opponents. Or they want to shelter a youngster from the attention that comes around making their debut.

For those reasons, and a host more, media managers can be put in tough situations around relatively straightforward team namings. And competitions around the world are doing their best to put structures in place that maintain a level playing field when it comes to knowing who’ll take the pitch.

But things can stray into more complex territory very quickly. For example, here are a few examples I dealt with as a media manager:

  • An athlete lost their father on the day of an international team announcement. The athlete was set to be named in the squad,

    but withdrew just before it was released to the media. There would be questions around why the player wasn’t selected, but was it correct for the wider family, who we couldn’t be sure had had time to be informed, to find out about the death of a loved one through the team openly addressing the situation?

  • Another time, an athlete ruled themselves out of a major tournament because their partner had a very premature baby. Saying ‘personal reasons’ can set off a race for journalists to uncover the truth behind a story. But front-footing with the truth wasn’t attention the family in any way wanted.
  • A star player once came into an international camp fresh from receiving the news that a friend had died suddenly in an accident. The death wasn’t a secret, but the impact it was having on the athlete wasn’t public knowledge. The athlete was already stepping into a personally hostile media situation, following an incident in a club match, so was it right to ensure they faced the dozens of reporters who wanted to speak with them?

In all three instances, operating with total transparency was a debatable move – and it wasn’t the one I made.

I like to think all media managers – and journalists, too, for that matter – are just people trying to do what’s right in often challenging circumstances. But you’ll regularly hear the suggestion that ‘just being open and honest’ is the way to navigate any scenario. Unfortunately, that’s an overly simplistic view of what can be vastly complex situations.

In Bermuda, Emirates Team New Zealand ate the fruits they helped create by not opening their mouths for three years. It’s discipline to be applauded, but it’s another reminder that, when it comes to transparency, things aren’t always black and white.

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Caley Wilson is a former media manager of New Zealand Rugby League and the Northern Mystics netball side. He is a co-founder of Blinder.

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