Armed with my secrets, the fight begins
Working in public relations with athletes can sometimes be a strange and combative experience. The desire for most marketing firms working with athletes is to market them above mere people, mere viewers, that their intrinsic ability to go higher, leap longer, kick a ball further, is enough to elevate them into superhero status. That’s whats sold in papers, that’s whats sold in marketing brochures. That’s what we are selling you: idolisation. Direct to your living room through the medium of live sport every week.
What we do tend to shy away from in marketing, advertising and PR is notions of human frailty, weakness, or out right terrible or misogynistic behavior. We’ve spoken on the blog before about our firms only half-joking “Wayne Carey template apology” for those who you may have offended. There is also grading and shading inherent in all sports – the more talented you are, the more you get away with. If sport has found any social conscience in the last few years, we should also acknowledge sport is a business: it won’t cut its most talented players lightly.
If this all seems self-evident truths, it also oft ill prepares those in its spotlight for some of its realities. Marketing can only go so far, clubs pre season briefings can only go so far. You will generally reveal who you are in time, in how you deal with media, with sponsors, with team-mates. We’ve spoken before about how the greatest sin for a number of years wasn’t committing an actual crime, it was simply being a “bad team-mate”. A “bad bloke”.
As discussed on the Outer Sanctum podcast, female fans do tend to overlook a LOT to simply enjoy the game, and the closer you get to inner sanctums, no pun intended, the more you find that you don’t particularly care for. And the more you learn that clubs are ruthless to the core: propping up the successful reprobate while cutting the loyal team-mate.
It seems far easier to discuss low scoring in AFLW than it is to discuss the behaviors you will overlook, that the people on your fridge magnets and membership brochures are….people. And they will fail, sometimes in morally challenging ways.
There is still enough masculinity in male sporting clubs, enough access to alcohol and women, enough ego and pursuit of alpha maledom that moral norms can often be checked at the door. It is a place for overt confidence, boldness and aggression, insouciance at best. There’s still a hierarchical system, there’s still militaristic regimes to follow, there’s still peer pressures, take out the handstand, cut the man bun.
While times have slightly changed, one of the stranger measurements of PR success with sporting teams used to be what you could cover up, rather than how you handled issues. To this day, transparency is still a naked terror for sporting outlets: those most angry that they weren’t informed a player was at Crown are those killing stories at an alarming rate.
Moral issues are difficult in PR, but one that always strikes me more than others is the idea of sporting redemption, the idea that terrible behavior is redeemed through the scoring of a goal or a touchdown or the lofting of a trophy. My own sporting teams and my own sporting fandom is not immune from this by any means.
It’s a complex trade-off the sports fan makes: what are you willing to buy, what are you willing to overlook to have your team and your fandom validated by trophies and Monday morning exaltation at work?
In truth, a lot of issues in sports marketing do tend to prey on the fact that a lot of fans don’t care: take the NCAA investigation into college sports corruption, and the apathetic shrug that comes with it. We KNOW they cheat alright, just give us March Madness basketball and some distractions. PR plays on that, and we know it – it’s a complexity that’s never gone away for me.
What do I overlook in PR to sell you a product, ensure that this person we are representing is out front for your lunch, advertising your product, speaking at your local football club with only the good stories told, only the acceptable parts of their struggle and a few funny stories. Do you want unvarnished? Or do you want the superhero telling you about his 6 goals at the Western Oval in the day?
The trick to selling redemptive stories? Market redemptive stories? It’s accentuating the positives and kicking the negatives to the curb. The reason Wayne Carey is hosting White Ribbon night? Time….there’s no singular redemptive act. If Johnny Manziel has a redemptive arc, it won’t be through hard work and counselling, we’ll grant it if he can throw a football.
When PR sells you a redemptive story, we’re hoping for an accumulation of time, sporting excellence and the right people writing the right columns or opening the right doors for the fallen star at the right time. Internally, this is the heart of advertising, and it’s troubling not just in sports. Ethically, and morally troubling. For no reason other than a couple of extra goals a year, we find a journalist to write the redemption story in the paper.
We reward winning, we reward victories, and we assign marketing dollars to winners. Not people, not human beings. The difference between Taylor Walker being a great captain and the redemption song of Jack Riewoldt?
Victory in a solitary game of football – that’s it. And they are good people at heart, but that’s the line: good captains and good blokes come with winning. And when you win, we offer you career redemption, because selling human beings is boring.
If Matthew Lodge plays well in the NRL, someone somewhere will claim he’s redeemed, and that’s simply not true. And it bothers me that someone, maybe even me, will be on set in an interview or on the phone to someone booking a venue saying he’s got a wonderful tale to tell. And it’s all a myth, redemption through nothing more than some ball skills and good tackles.
Redemption, crisis management, long term equity strategies for rebuilding…all good words, essentially meaning repairing a tarnished image, and like it or not, the easiest way to do it is through play, through excellent sporting play. At some point this year, that will be tested when (it’s when, not if) a current Australian sportsman is caught up in the Me Too movement.
It’s worth remembering at that point for all the press releases and editorials, forgive and forget is still on offer as long as you slot that goal from 40. And that’s all that’s changed in the story. Grasp that, live with it ethically, and you can work in the industry easily…
We’re selling myths, not people. Dealing with people? That’s a little more difficult of course…
It comes and goes in waves
Of course, the flip side to all of this is that while we’re varnishing issues of bad behavior, we’re also promoting the superhero myth by not telling you of athletes anxiety. The single greatest change in sports PR is a consciousness of mental health and wellbeing. The idea that a player struggling with personal issues is some kind of “team-mate you can’t trust in the trenches” is fading, but it’s not completely gone.
A lot of sportspeople do tend to be put into situations involving PR and their own brand they aren’t equipped to handle, so lets set that aside from actual criminal behavior for a moment. What trains someone to speak eloquently in front of 1000 people at a lunch?
We tell people in our clientele to diversify their social media presence without acknowledging or educating what happens when interactions occur. We tell people to be themselves, but only if they are themselves within limit. We criticise people for answering honestly, and answering blandly.
To be honest though, sometimes it’s a mask, it’s a persona, it’s a way of coping. Athletes as human beings? Vulnerable and inarticulate in social situations? Who wants to sell THAT? Those people at the lunch, those people on set filming the commercial, they wan larger than life, entertainment. They want a star…
They don’t want to film human frailty…
What is the measurement for anxiety before you play a game, what mask do you put on to steel yourself in front of your team-mates that everything is fine. How do you know? Do you know what to do if you send a tweet out that goes viral for the wrong reasons? To be the #1 issue on AFL360 with judging panelists who had forgotten their own anxieties?
In a week where Wayne Schwass and Kevin Love both conducted interviews on mental health, it’s of course incumbent on me to note that the first part of this blog post, dealing with the genuine issues of the wayward sports star, that there is also a great deal of management goes into mental health at clubs that PR gets involved with.
The strange realisation is that those conversations are somehow much harder than when a PR firm deals with a recalcitrant. It’s still a generational issue that most CEOs come from the shut up and play era in sports, and so they aren’t equipped to deal with these moments as well as they are errant physical behaviors they’ve seen before. And that is very strange to consider.
Do you know how many one week “strained quads” or “nicked calfs” are actually someone needs a break from the game with the club working overtime to keep the story/personal issue in check?
Does Todd Goldstein talking about his personal issues change your perception of him, or do you still not worry and think Big Preussy (HILARIOUS) should be the #1 ruckman at the Kangaroos? Does it matter, does it change anything, or is grist to the mill. Do you think people should “shut up and play?”
Love is an interesting study, given that for most of his career he’s been something of an NBA whipping boy, criticised for many things, at one point in Cleveland culturally isolated for being too culturally different, and the focus and outlet of team-mate frustration. Schwass? He was an alpha male player in an alpha dog team, one of the last of its kind. How about Alex Fasolo, who played with a vivid smile on his face after kicking a goal?
And the reason for this paragraph is to point out, they, we (in PR), the clubs, we’re giving you an image to hold on to that very often isn’t based in reality. And sometimes it’s that individual on their own giving everyone an external persona to hide deep struggles.
A lot of the reason for the first part of this blog post is this: that part is easy, understandable. We can deal with crisis management easily. It’s cut and dried: we can redeem your actions or we can’t, we can get through the club suspension, we can get through the Fox Footy interview with Neroli Meadows. But how can we get you through anxiety so deep and crippling you can’t get out of your car?
Senior journalists at the Herald Sun still don’t understand mental illness, and in PR we still, like in sports, exalt the mentally strong, those that turn up to events time and again. We’re an unforgiving industry, cut and dried when it comes to someone “letting you down” or not appearing when promised. We don’t use our strategies to de-stigmatise mental illness, as perhaps we should.
In exalting and promoting the idolisation theory, we promote strong is good. Battle back, suck it up, get on the field, have a go. We promote heroes out of flawed individuals without blinking. Yet in dealing with athletes, and promoting them or getting them booked for talks, we don’t stop to think about WHY someone might have cancelled, or not been at their best. What’s our responsibility in PR at that point? Do we have the right to talk to that person about it?
When you play for a sports team, like Kevin Love says, this is the mantra: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own.
That as an industry it’s much easier and safer to work out how to redeem someone who’s committed a crime than it is to discuss strategies with clubs and CEOs of sporting teams for mental health is something that needs to change, but on reflection, it’s still shockingly far away from happening. We still judge the late, the silent, the shy. We still judge the person who turns up to a lunch and doesn’t say much.
We aren’t there yet….