Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Communications Bull Pen: Crisis Communicators

Every industry and every sector of society seems to have a language all its own.  As I watch the Pittsburgh Pirates compete for a playoff spot for the first time in 20 years, not only have I thought recently about the language of baseball, but more to the point, the language surrounding its crisis managers.

No, I’m not talking about Alex Rodriguez.  I’m talking about the bull pen.

Every team has a group of pitchers who start the game (the “starters”) and usually try to complete the first six or seven innings.  At that point, their arms get tired enough that it’s time to bring in someone with a fresh arm who is only supposed to pitch for a brief time to turn the game around or “save” it for the starter and put another win in the column.  Those pitchers are the “bull pen.”

The Pirates have an exceptional bull pen this year.  They’ve been able to come into some tense situations and diffuse them with precisely placed fast balls, cutters and breaking balls.  Bases loaded and no outs with the Pirates up by just one run?  No problem.  Just put Jason Grilli or Mark Melancon on the mound to work their magic, which usually is quick outs, preferably strikeouts.

In a baseball game, a crisis is when the other team scores, when it puts a lot of players on base, and your team is having trouble getting them out.  That’s the defensive kind.

The offensive kind (in more ways than one) is when the other team is effectively preventing yours from scoring.

To diffuse a crisis of a defensive nature, you need a good pitcher.  Sometimes it helps if the pitcher is left-handed or right-handed, depending on how difficult that can make it for batters to hit pitches.

You need a pitcher who can quickly assess the situation and knows what can happen if he loses control.  He has to know in advance what he will do once events start to quickly unfold.  And he has to have a back-up plan in mind.  All of this must go through the minds of bull pen pitchers, otherwise known as “relievers,” before every pitch. 

But once he’s considered all of the possibilities, he has to act quickly and act decisively.  Know the pitch and deliver it. Strike one!   And then repeat the entire mental gymnastics process once again before sending the next pitch towards home plate.

Baseball relievers are a lot like crisis communicators.  We have to consider the possibilities, know what can happen and we must anticipate. We must know what messages we must send, how to deliver them and we need to do it quickly and decisively.  Just as a pitcher needs to know which pitch will work best against each batter, we must know what communications strategies, tactics and media will help us best connect with each audience.

At the end of the day, it’s not a far off metaphor – crisis communicators as the public relations bull pen.  The good thing, though about PR, is it doesn’t matter if you’re left-handed or right-handed.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

In Football, Player Behavior is a PR Issue

Before I get into the meat of this blog entry, I need to make something clear.  Football is my favorite sport, bar none.  And it is with this in mind that I’ve been thinking lately about a serious PR challenge the game has faced.

No one could have said it better than football legend Vince Lombardi in describing the game of football and the way it’s approached in this country:

To be sure, in the pros and in major college football, winning is unapologetically all that matters, which is why so many human failures can be so often tolerated and sometimes overlooked, that is as long as the program is winning.  This atmosphere can make doing PR for such a program pretty tough.

Here’s another saying that applies in PR as in life: “Actions speak louder than words.”

This mantra comes to play nearly every time I sit down with a client.

Sometimes however actions, not words, are the problem.  Consider this:

In one major college program this past week two players were just suspended for the entire upcoming season.  One was for a “violation of team rules.”  The other was tied to a player’s arrest.  A third player from that team was suspended earlier because he was arrested for assault and he pleaded guilty in the courts.  That player did a short jail stint.  Technically, all are still affiliated with the program.

Needless to say, these kinds of things can be significant distractions for a coach just trying to keep his players focused on school and football.  But not to be diminished are the serious PR implications.

The public has been inundated with news reports that since the 2013 Super Bowl in February, 31 currently active players have been arrested.  The alleged offenses have ranged from public intoxication, DUI offenses and assault, to child abuse, gun violations and domestic abuse.

The game of football has a PR problem, and that problem is centered on the actions of players.  The PR remedy is not to somehow try to explain away inexcusable behaviors, but rather, to clearly explain what the organization is doing to stop the seemingly growing pattern of such behavior.

Football fans tend to have an exceedingly high tolerance for poor off-the-field offenses, so long as the offenders can catch a pass or throw a football.  But when they start to see one too many interceptions or fumbles … well … that is inexcusable.  This is a reality and a major PR problem for football organizations.

Sooner or later, reputation comes to play.  Those football organizations that seem to house a steady stream of off-the-field offenders don’t have as much goodwill built up in their fan bases.  Because of this the bottom can quickly fall out.

Those organizations with stronger reputations for higher standards in the player character department tend to have much stronger and long-standing fan and community support.  Any football program needs that to get through the lean years when losses on the field outnumber wins. 

From a PR standpoint, the one thing any football administration can do to help itself in that area is to create a zero-tolerance atmosphere for off-the-field violations of team rules and the law.  Such an atmosphere is usually marked by quick, stiff and sometimes permanent disciplinary measures. 

If this is well communicated throughout the recruiting process (or in the pros the draft process) and every day within the team, not only will the pattern of off-the-field violations diminish, but in the end, the players themselves will become positive role models.  And that’s something any fan base and community can get behind.