Framing the Facts

An athletic director's world of management issues isn't always easily explained to a reporter looking for a quick quote. Take the time to frame your thoughts, and you'll come out looking picture perfect.

By Kathleen Hessert and Connie Gillette

Kathleen Hessert is President of Sports Media Challenge, a training and consulting firm that helps train athletes, coaches, and administrators in crisis management, media relations, and public speaking. She is author of Power Training: How to Win at the Media Game and The Coach's Communication Playbook. Connie Gillette is a Sports Media Challenge consultant and trainer with more than 14 years of media relations experience in both the U.S. and Europe.

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1402/framingfacts.htm

Today's athletic director can no longer hide behind the scenes. From hiring decisions to department strategy to crisis situations, the press is, more and more often, turning to administrators for answers to their questions.

But talking about management decisions is harder than fielding the questions you got during your coaching days. Explaining a long-term solution to a budget crisis, for example, is trickier than discussing why you're starting your senior quarterback over the up-and-coming sophomore.

Yet, speaking with the press is certainly not something to shy away from. You've spent many hours reaching the right decisions and strategic plans, and it can only be a plus to share your wisdom with those who want to know the details.

But what is the best way to present your ideas and yourself? It's not always easy to know when to give personal opinions vs. when to talk the party line--and when to elaborate with a story or anecdote. This article will provide some basic rules to keep in mind.

1. If you own it, talk about it.
A journalist wants to talk to you for one reason: You're an expert on the topic he or she is reporting on. So, when questions are posed on departmental decisions, step up to the plate and answer them. No one knows the department's strategic plans better than you, and no one can give better information on the department than you.

However, as much as you are explaining a departmental decision, this is also a message about you. So think about what you would like to be known for. Practice what you would tell a reporter about your philosophy, your goals, your dreams, and your experience. Think about what stories you might like to share. It's much simpler (and more effective) to talk from the concrete world of specific experiences than to concoct opinions that sound academic.

2. If you don't own it, talk the party line.
When it comes to a specific team or overall institutional plans, you do have to talk the party line. You need to show teamwork with upper-level administration and each head coach.

This doesn't mean you have to robotically spit out the same message the press has heard from the other party. The trick is to spend a little time writing the message "in other words." Massage the message so that you can use words you're comfortable with to explain the same idea. And do it a few times, so you can avoid that robotic sound and appearance you've no doubt seen others adopt on camera.

What if you don't exactly agree with what the university president or coach has said? Ah, now that's a bit trickier. In this situation, acknowledge the question and then steer it in the direction you'd like to go. For example: "I know that's what the coach believes and I have confidence in his decisions. One thing I know for certain is that ..."

3. You don't have a crystal ball.
Reporters sometimes ask questions about hypothetical situations: "If you can't find a naming donor, will you downsize the new facility?" Stay away from answering these kinds of questions. You can't predict the future, and even though the first question seems harmless enough, the next question can have you sliding down a slippery path.

Again, the safest bet is to acknowledge the question and bridge to a message you'd like to share. For example, "It doesn't make sense to worry about a problem that has not arisen. What I do know is that we have a super fund-raising plan, which is well researched and allows for a myriad of possibilities. When people see the pluses of this new facility, we are very confident we will receive the support we need."

4. If you dread it, you will get it.
Of course, you'd like to talk about all of the successes you've had or the obstacles you've overcome. Unfortunately, reporters may also want to talk about past failures or obstacles you're still struggling with. If you have anything in your past that you are fervently wishing the media will never ask about, you'd better think of what you'll say if your wish doesn't come true. And remember, someday, these interviews may resurface, so don't take them lightly.

5. Slow down.
The best way to avoid saying anything to a reporter that you'll regret is to take it slow. Good interviewing is like good driving, and it's awfully hard to crash and burn at 30 mph. So, take your time.

When the reporter has finished asking a question, stop for a few seconds and think about your answer. If you're doing the interview for broadcast, unless it's live, they will edit out your silence. If you're doing a print interview, the journalist will no doubt appreciate a slow, thoughtful answer over a hurried meaningless stream of words.

6. You don't score any points on defense.
Often people think of an interview as a one-way street where the reporter asks for information and you provide it. It's a little bit like being a goalie--you're spending all of your energy deflecting shots (which is important) but you're certainly not scoring any points.

The truth is you can defend and turn to offense very quickly. It takes a little planning and practice, but start by thinking of the interview as a two-way street, where you are using the news outlet to reach an audience. In answering questions about why you fired your head coach, for example, explain what you really want the public to know--that the decision has the department's long-range goals in mind, which will ultimately benefit the school and the students.

7. An interview is not the time for original thought.
You, more than many people, understand the importance of preparation. You wouldn't debate a decision with upper-level administrators without thinking about their follow-up questions, would you?

Well, don't approach an interview unprepared either. Remember, the media provide you with a way to reach a wide audience, so don't leave anything to chance. Spend some time thinking about questions you might be asked by the media and then think about how you can answer them, using the rules above as guidelines. Preparing for interviews and determining the party line in advance should be standard procedure in every athletic program.