Looking Good!

Presenting a positive, effective presence to the media takes more than pausing to answer a reporterís questions. Top coaches give their advice on how to be media-savvy in todayís media-heavy world.

By Greg Scholand

Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at gs@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.3, March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1303/lookinggood.htm

Blaine Taylor had a lot on his mind as he stepped in front of the microphones for his first press conference as the new Head Menís Coach at the University of Montana. He had just been promoted from an assistant coach position heíd held for the past five years, and the first question he faced was a tough one: What is the biggest adjustment youíll have to make now that youíre a head coach?

"The list of things in my head was endless," Taylor recalls. "I had no idea how to answer." He took a moment to think, and then responded: "Making more than the minimum payment on my credit card bills." Everyone in the room laughed, instantly the mood was lightened, and the rest of the press conference went smoothly.

Taylor likes using humor to set an informal, conversational tone when he talks with the media. He says it makes him feel more comfortable and less pressured, and allows him to develop a rapport with the people asking the questions. And because heís comfortable, he speaks more freely, openly, and honestly about his team, which his listeners appreciate. Now the Head Menís Coach at Old Dominion University, Taylorís reputation for media-friendliness has followed him throughout his career, allowing him always to put a positive face on his program, and letting reporters know that he and his team are accessible and welcoming.

Developing a good relationship with the media improves your programís public perception. Media-savvy coaches look better in front of the cameras and in the papers, attract more coverage for their teams, and represent their programs and their schools in a consistently positive way.

Part of the Job
Coaches who are most adept at dealing with the media agree on one thing: Itís part of their job description. Understanding that your responsibilities as a coach go beyond the teamís internal daily operations is a necessary first step to being media-savvy.

"Talking to the media should not be seen as a chore, and I donít understand coaches who look at it that way," says Phil Martelli, Head Menís Coach at St. Josephís University. "The job of a coach is three-pronged: youíve got to coach your team, recruit your future teams, and be responsible for the public relations of your program."

For Martelli, working with the media means making the best possible impression on the public. "I look at every opportunity, whether it be print media, television, electronic media, or anything else, as a chance to do a service for the university and for the basketball program," he says. "The way I present myself and the way I present our team affects the way people think about us, our reputation, and even which students might want to come here."

Once youíve accepted that itís your job to work with reporters, remember that itís also their job to work with you. In other words, for the media covering your team, your accessibility is the key to their ability to do their work.

"You need to show that you appreciate reportersí interest in covering your program by being available when they need you," says John Tharpe, Head Menís Coach at Lawrence University. "We make time to meet any requests that the media has, whether itís to talk to me or to any of the players, and thatís because we understand that theyíre trying to do their job. And you canít just deal with them after victories and when things are going wellóthey have a role and a job to do, and itís your responsibility to be available to them, even when things are not going your way."

Itís also important to know that reporters work in a deadline-driven business, so making yourself available when they contact you will be greatly appreciated. "The people Iíve dealt with have enjoyed the fact that they can pretty much walk through the door and be welcome 24-7," says Taylor. "Even if Iím in the middle of other work, when the phone rings Iíll drop what Iím doing to talk to a reporter for a little while if they need me. Itís just a part of exposing your program to the public."

All About Control
No two coaches relate to the media in the same way. Everyone develops their own style for communicating, based on their personality, comfort level, and the way they run their program. But when a coach has a bad episode with the media, the same culprit is usually to blame: loss of control. The most important skill that makes a coach media-savvy is the ability to remain in control under any circumstances.

"Coaches say things they might regret when their emotions are too far toward an extremeówhether itís too high or too low," says Amy Ruley, Head Womenís Coach at North Dakota State University. "Itís critical to maintain an even level of composure every time youíre talking with the media. You can think a lot more clearly when youíre not overemotional or upset."

Tom Brennan, Head Menís Coach at the University of Vermont, agrees that composure is key. And, he points out, timing is sometimes the biggest determining factor in whether a coach appears composed.

"Iíve always said that if I talked to the media an hour after the game instead of 10 minutes after the game, Iíd tell them entirely different things," he explains. "Your perspective completely changes. Right after the game, youíre so emotional that youíre either gushing because you won or youíre devastated because you lost, and it definitely affects the way you act. Thatís when youíve got to be especially careful.

"Say you run into a question that you donít like, or you feel that a reporter takes a cheap shot with a questionóright after a game is the time when youíre most vulnerable," Brennan continues. "If you overreact and get nasty about it, that doesnít make anybody look good."

Ruley suggests taking some time to wind down after a game before you face reporters. With even five minutes to yourself, you can collect your thoughtsóand gather some objective information about the contest. "I always take a little time to look over statistics after a game before I go to a press conference," she says. "Sometimes when you watch a game you donít see exactly what happens, or you get an impression that isnít quite accurate. Iíll look at the numbers and realize that a player I thought was shooting really well actually wasnít, or that we had a better defensive effort than I realized. Having the stats in front of you can help you to focus on the facts and not your own emotions."

Keeping your composure also requires understanding the questions and not overreacting to what a reporter throws at you. "One thing that coaches doóand I know Iíve done itóis mishear questions," Martelli says. "You hear part of a question, and you assume itís going down a certain path. But if you had listened to the whole question and thought about it, youíd realize it was getting at something else entirely. And so maybe a question that you thought you were uncomfortable with and was making you upset really isnít a problem."

Planning Your Message
Coming off well every time you face the media is challenging, since during the course of a season youíre inevitably faced with a variety of highs and lows. But knowing what you want to say before you speak can help you to look good, whatever the circumstances.

For instance, when Martelli is preparing for a press conference, he plans a message in advance to help him get his points across. "I go into the game with a game plan, so why not have a media plan to focus the message that I want to get out there?" he says. "When I talk to the media, thatís my chance to deliver a messageómaybe itís subtly to the team, or maybe itís to the fans, but itís important to face the reporters having a plan.

"Letís say we lose a disappointing game to a less-talented team that we were favored against," Martelli explains. "My message to the media and to fans might be that Iím well aware weíve got some holes or areas where weíre incomplete, but weíre trying to fix them. So I might speak in these terms: ĎWe know weíre not getting the results that we want, and weíre working very hard to make it better.í"

Preparing a main message also allows you to set a tone and steer the questions in a direction youíre more comfortable with. "By having a plan for your opening statement, you can actually end up dictating what the questions are going to be about," Martelli says. "That way, they know what you think is important and what you want to talk about. Of course, you should answer any questions they have, but a lot of questions are open-ended, and you can make them think along the same lines youíre thinking."

Other coaches say they are more comfortable being spontaneous with the mediaóespecially if theyíve been answering questions for many years. Brennan, who is retiring at seasonís end after a 24-year head coaching career, doesnít go into media sessions with any pre-conceived ideas. "Iíve never prepared for a press conference," he says. "I just go in and shoot. They ask, I tell, and thatís itóthereís no forethought whatsoever."

However, Brennan is careful to make sure each response sends the right messages. "I always try to really think the question through before I answer," he says. "You only get one chance to respond to a question, so youíve got to take a second to think and make sure that your words reveal what you really want to say."

Team Effort
While the head coach is the most visible spokesperson for a team, remember that there are other components of a media-friendly program. The way your team looks in print and on screen depends on the performance of others as well.

Your athletes, of course, are consistently front and center for the media, and many coaches take time to prep them on communication skills. "I bring our kids to the microphone with me in a lot of different settings," Taylor says. "The point is to develop their ability to communicate, think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, and handle questions.

"For example, we hold an event in the fall to introduce our players to the public, and I use that time to give them some practice speaking for themselves," Taylor continues. "I walk around with a microphone and interview every kid on the team. They donít know what the questions are in advance, and theyíve got to stand up in front of hundreds of people and talk about themselves, their background, their expectations, or whatever I decide to ask them. Part of the kidsí development is learning how to step up to a microphone and answer questions and speak to people."

At North Dakota State, Ruleyís players sit down with "reporters" from the sports information department for mock interviews that introduce them to the media process. "Fortunately for us, most of our players come from pretty successful high school teams, so theyíve usually had some media exposure," she says. "But some of them have only talked to a local newspaper reporter a few times, and then when they get here there are radio and television stations covering us. So we take the time to educate them and make sure they know whatís expected of them and how to handle themselves. Once theyíre used to it, most players really enjoy talking to the media."

Ruley says that making athletes comfortable with the press is the most important thing. "Learning to relax is the biggest part, so we tell them to realize that when theyíre being interviewed, theyíre participating in a conversation," she says. "We tell them to use complete sentences, to be articulate and concise, and to answer questions as thoroughly as possible. And we also make sure they know that if thereís a question they donít want to respond to, itís alright to let the interviewer know that, or to request that a question be directed to the coaching staff."

Aside from athletes, sports information staff members also play a large role in how well a team relates to the media. From providing up-to-date statistics and confirming facts, to sending video highlights for local news broadcasts and arranging player interviews, media members rely heavily on sports information personnel when they cover a team. So a good working relationship with your sports information department can be a big help.

"Our sports information people work so hard, and their efforts have done a lot for our programís exposure," Ruley says. "I make sure to provide them with everything they need whenever they ask, so that everything they give to the media about our team is first-class. In response, they work really hard to increase exposure for our program by sending out information thatís easy to read, accurate, and useful."

Avoiding Mistakes
Nobody is perfect when it comes to public speaking, and almost every coach has said something that they later regretted. But experienced coaches suggest following some tried and true bits of wisdom to avoid making mistakes.

Avoid "coachspeak." Especially when things arenít going well, it can be easy to slip into a routine of saying the same things over and over. Trotting out the old maxims about needing to work hard, play as a team, and take one game at a time may seem like a safe way to get through interviews, but it doesnít communicate anything meaningful or interesting, and rarely reflects well on a coach.

"You hear some coaches going on and on with these overworked clichťs, and when you break them down, theyíre really an attempt to say nothing," says Martelli. "I think itís much better to be honest and say what you really think, instead of sounding like youíre just trying to waste time."

Brennan agrees that honesty is a coachís best policy. "I think talking in coachspeak is insulting to the media," he says. "Of course you donít want to come out and kill the kids if they had a bad game, but telling the truth and giving real answers to questions is part of a coachís responsibility."

Donít criticize the refs. The officials can be an easy scapegoat after a loss in which it felt like every whistle went the other way. But even if youíre convinced that the refs did a bad job, taking frustration out on them doesnít come across well. "Iíve found that criticizing anybody, other than yourself, can make you look bad, and thatís especially true with officials," says Taylor. "People are expecting you to speak about the things that were within your control, not complain about the things that werenít. I think you have to say to yourself, ĎMy words are going to be professional, theyíre going to be honest, and Iím not going to digress into the negative.í"

Go easy on your players. When a player, or an entire team, has an off-night, any reporters who were at the game will already know it. If you ridicule someoneís performance, you wonít be offering anything new, but you will leave a negative impression of your own ability to handle a rough night.

"My philosophy is that weíre all in this together, so if the team doesnít execute, that reflects as much on me as it does on my players," Ruley says. "If someone whoís normally reliable doesnít have her usual game one night, Iím not afraid to say that she didnít have her best outing, but Iíll never say that a player cost us a game or call out a player who didnít perform. Talking with the media is not the time to address those things."

Often, not being too harsh is simply a matter of choosing your words diplomatically. "To say ĎSo-and-so shot two-for-eight, he obviously didnít have a great shooting nightí is fineóitís the truth, and that just makes you look honest," says Tharpe. "But to say that the kid who shot two-for-eight really stunk tonight is not something a coach should be doing."

Slow down. When youíve got a lot to say, remember it doesnít all have to come out at once. Taking the time to organize your thoughts allows you to communicate clearly and effectively. "When you get excited and you have a bunch of ideas to get across, Iíd say the best thing to do is pause for poise," Taylor says. "If you choose your words carefully and donít rush, you wonít speak in run-on sentences or a flurry of fragmented thoughts, and thatís when youíll come off looking your best."

Thereís Always Tomorrow
Perhaps the best piece of advice is also the hardest to followógo easy on yourself. You wonít like every article thatís written about your team or every single quote that you give, so itís not practical to expect a perfect performance every time.

"I go into media settings and just try to do the best job that I can, and then I walk out, and thatís all I can do," says Taylor. "You can talk brilliantly for 10 minutes, then say one dumb thing, and thatís what gets printed. You really canít take yourself too seriously."

"The one thing you find out when you get a lot of media attention is that the things you say are here today and gone tomorrow," adds Brennan. "When you see your own name and quotes in the paper, it seems to take on a lot more importance, but everyone else that reads it just takes it in and goes on to the next thing. When you talk to the media on a regular basis, there are bound to be great times and bad times. If you donít take either too seriously, youíll be fine."

Sidebar: High School News
For the typical high school coach, media relations are fairly straightforwardóbe available for the local media after games, and talk to reporters when they seek you out. But there are also some proactive steps high school coaches can take to ensure that their programs receive maximum, positive exposure.

Providing local media with team information as soon as itís available is a good start. "Before the season, I mail out our schedule, our tournament schedules, and our roster information to the local newspaper," says Mike LeDuc, Head Coach at Glendora (Calif.) High School. "I know that they have trouble getting that information from some schools, so I make sure they receive ours well in advance."

Once the season is underway, it can be worthwhile to keep local media abreast of anything noteworthy involving your program or your players. "We print a program for every game, and Iíll include little tidbits of information about things that have been going on with our team that week," LeDuc says. "The reporters who come to our games get a copy, and if they see something that interests them, they call me to ask about it. Sometimes weíll get additional coverage that way."

An important key to keeping a good relationship with local writers is working within their time requirements, particularly after games. LeDuc communicates in advance with the reporters who cover his team, letting them know the routine: When a game ends, heíll spend one to three minutes in the locker room addressing his players, and then he will be available for interviews. "Itís mutual respectóthey respect that I need to talk to my team right after a game, and I respect that they need to finish their work in a timely fashion," he says.

In talking to his players about being interviewed by the press, LeDuc keeps his advice simpleóbe polite, always share credit with teammates, and speak respectfully about opponents. He also tells them to always think about what theyíre going to say before they say anything.

LeDuc has found that veteran coaches will often have more experience than the reporters covering their teams, and sometimes a little media coaching is not out of line. "High school teams are usually covered by young sports reporters who are just starting out, and sometimes you might not agree with the angle theyíre taking or the questions they ask," he says. "If theyíre covering your team on a regular basis, instead of getting caught up in the fact that their style doesnít work for you, try helping them out a little bit. Let them know when they ask a very good question, and suggest that they try something else when they ask a bad one. They will probably appreciate it, and theyíll cover you better."