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12 tips for better media relations in pro sport

The hunt is constantly on in top-level sport for ways to improve. And as more and more minds have put attention to this space, the concept of ‘marginal gains’ has come into the spotlight.

As Sir David Brailsford, whose work has changed British cycling both on the track and the road, explains: “The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together"

 David Brailsford and Chris Froome of Team Sky  David Brailsford and Chris Froome of Team Sky

So what can comms managers do when it comes to 'marginal gains'? Here are some ideas from pro sport.

1. For starters, ensure your team understands why they’re dealing with the media

If you’re a comms manager, chances are you’ll have had a keen interest in the media for many years. You may have even worked as a journalist. A number of your athletes will have had very different backgrounds – and that's partly why they are so good at what they do. So invest time at the start of each session in allowing your team to understand the importance of the media.

 Bath Rugby Club, UK  Bath Rugby Club, UK

While sports teams have their own channels to distribute information, the media are also a key link to fans, members and sponsors. So that’s who your athletes are really talking to when doing interviews.

If your athletes grasp the ‘why’ of media interactions, the ‘how’ and other elements will flow far easier.

2. Take different cultural upbringings into account

When I worked with the New Zealand rugby league team, a number of the boys were of Pacific Island origin. The younger Samoan boys, especially, were very uncomfortable about engaging with the media. This was over and above natural nervousness.

I asked Tapu Misa, a leading Samoan journalist, why she thought that was.

“If you’ve been raised in a traditional Samoan family, where children were not encouraged to speak — in fact, were actively discouraged from speaking — and were expected to remain in the background, to always defer to elders, that becomes deeply embedded," she said.

“It can be intensely discomfiting to be asked to put that cultural training aside and put yourself forward — and even more so if you’re in a Palagi setting (which is most media), where you feel even more alienated. You're not likely to have the confidence or the ease and familiarity to be comfortable in that setting; and it takes a lot of training to overcome those cultural hurdles.”

That added some clarity as to why being asked to share an opinion on behalf of their team, or their country, was such a challenge for some of the league boys.  They, in effect, needed to speak out of turn to do what their team was asking.

 The New Zealand rugby league team (2013) The New Zealand rugby league team (2013)

So, do some homework with each of your players and sort out what situations are manageable and where they might need a (potentially substantial) hand.

There's another layer of complexity when athletes aren't being interviewed in their first language. But that's not a reason to ignore the contribution such players can make, especially when it comes to connecting with fans of similar backgrounds.

3. Provide the media with content

You spend more time with your team than the media does and you're privy to situations they aren't. Where appropriate, get photos or video footage that you can share with the media to drop into their stories. Many sports are now also providing the media with game day photos. These pieces of content give the media an opportunity to cover something they otherwise may have ignored.

Training times are another area that can really affect coverage. Understand the constraints under which the media following your team operate and see what you can do to assist them. For example, it might be that running media sessions before training, rather than afterwards, is a better way to get coverage.

Products like We Transfer and Dropbox can streamline the process of sharing video content with the media.

4. Know your audiences - and make sure your athletes do too

You’re more closely connected than the media to the source of the stories (meaning your athletes, coaches and clubs), so help everyone out by finding relevant angles for specific media organisations. Then ensure your athletes understand the media outlet they’re being interviewed for, so they’re better able to connect.

Sports journalism in New Zealand, for example, has been irreparably changed by TV’s The Crowd Goes Wild show. They’ve forged their reputation on reporters singing with Usain Bolt, doing bombs with Ana Ivanovic, or taking on UFC star Mark Hunt at table tennis. If CGW is coming to interview your team, you’d best be prepared to help them with something outside the norm.

5. Ensure each athlete brings a story

It can be easy for athletes to get on auto-pilot and think their contribution to an interview consists just of being in the right spot at the right time. This is a surefire way to up your percentage of dull conversations, which in turn leads to less coverage for your team.

 Irish Olympic rowing medallists, Gary and Paul O'Donovan Irish Olympic rowing medallists, Gary and Paul O'Donovan

Often athletes have great story possibilities sitting just under the surface, which a bit of scratching by a comms manager can help reveal. Everyone – from the athlete to the media to the fans – wins when there’s interesting territory to discuss.

6. Help the media to correctly pronounce athlete names

It’s easy to feel a little less love for someone who mauls your name each time they say it. Some athletes and their families have put up with this from sports commentators and interviewers for years.

Comms managers are in a beautiful position to help. They can easily record each of their athletes saying their names and then distribute these recordings as a package to the media. Audio or video is better than written attempts at describing pronunciation, but all forms are an asset for your team.

Too often this area has been neglected, including by athletes not wanting to cause a fuss, but it’s time we all handled things better. This video with some NRL players shines nice light on the space.

...and vice versa

While we're there, make sure your athletes know the name of the person interviewing them, including their correct pronunciation, and then use it. This isn’t ‘suck-up’ behaviour. It’s common courtesy and ensures an interview starts on a respectful note.

7. Establish the privacy boundaries for each member of your team

Some athletes are more than happy doing feature interviews in their own home with their children on their lap. Others can’t stand the thought of their house or their kids’ images being public.

Some athletes are happy to discuss personal relationships. Others think that’s none of your business.

Some athletes are okay with their personal mobile numbers being given to the media. Others think that’s a substantial invasion of privacy.

We all have different personal boundaries, so learn early on where they are for each member of your team.

New technologies exist to help with these privacy challenges. Comms managers can now schedule media calls to the personal mobiles of their athletes, without sharing their number with the caller, through Blinder.

8. Don’t fight it (or at least pick your battles)

Your players and coaches need to understand that, over the course of a season, it’s not all going to be a walk in the park. In some parts of the world, the media scrutinises sport more closely than any other facet of life. There will be ebbs and flows in the team/media relationship – and a lot of energy can be absorbed in futile attempts to adjust things.

Steve Hansen, the coach of rugby’s world champion All Blacks, has spoken of “fighting the media” when he was an assistant coach.

“Rightly or wrongly, I'd had a gutsful of a lot of things and thought I would take them on. I found out the media are mightier than the individual and they fought back and it wasn't pretty.”

‘Mr Grumpy’ has since undergone a major transformation and is known as one of sports’ most open and insightful interview subjects. He’s been widely applauded by the media for his off-field management, while his team have continued to win on the field.

9. Be clear about interview arrangements and give reminders

If an athlete thinks they’re doing a 5min interview and a journalist thinks it’s a 30min conversation for a double-page Sunday newspaper spread, of course there’s room for tension or someone coming across as unreasonable. Establish the boundaries in advance.

Also, when your number one priority is scoring a goal in a semi-final on Saturday in front of 60,000 people, it’s easy to forget things. Remind your athletes of what’s expected of them and when.

Applications like WhatsApp and Slack are good for sending group messages.

10. Record your team’s interviews for training purposes

Your high performance department wouldn’t consider playing a game and not recording it to analyse afterwards. Comms managers have the same opportunity when it comes to media interviews.

Recording interviews means comms managers can:

  • give athletes feedback on how to improve
  • have a record of conversations for dealing with any misquotes
  • have additional content for online sharing

You’ll regularly see comms managers recording audio at team media sessions, while new tools like Blinder allow them to record any media interviews that their team members do on their personal mobiles also.

11. Let your team have some fun in front of the cameras

All fans want to see their team striving to be the best. So get cameras into the weights room, for example, to show the sweat and tears behind every performance. The All Blacks do that each week in camp. But don’t forget that players need a release from time-to-time and the media can play a role in that.

Cat Tuivaiti is one of New Zealand’s best netball shooters. She credits her ‘bitchy resting face’ with contributing to her reputation as a bit of a hard-arse. You can see Cat letting the media playfully explore her relationship with her team mates here.

12. Win

It’s far easier for your team to talk about how awesome they are after a win, rather than describing why they came second (again). And more people want to talk with winners. So if you really want to get better media coverage, just ensure your team is a winning one!

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

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