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If Success is Crucial Then Collaboration is Critical

This is a guest contribution from Wesley Mallette, CEO, Comment Communications, a strategic sports and entertainment communications firm, focused on strategic public relations, media training, image consulting, crisis communication and issues management, as well as helping athletes build their post-athletic careers in the broadcast booth.

By leveraging the firm’s expertise and deep relationships with the media, Comment works with its clients to help tell their stories and position athletes and companies they represent in a way that enables them to maneuver successfully through today’s complex traditional and social media environment.

When crisis hits, an athlete’s world is turned upside down.  Immediately, he seeks the counsel of his go-to advisors: his agent, his attorney and his family, the group that will be his support system during these tumultuous times.

But there’s another equally important relationship, sometimes overlooked, that rounds out an athlete’s “success team” in a crisis, and it’s the role of the PR Professional or strategic communications team.

When things go wrong for the star, everyone is quick to sound off, “Who is handling his PR? What was he thinking? How did he let this happen?”

Regardless of how savvy the athlete is or how brilliant the agents and attorneys are – and all of them understand what’s at stake in crisis and the principles of what needs to be done – it’s a dangerous gamble if the PR team is called in too late, or not at all.

The “we can handle it” approach or worse, “we’ll just get through it,” can be extremely damaging to the short and long term career of an athlete.  Even though the athlete may “get through it,” – and one way or the other he will– the collateral damage is sometimes irreparable.  In the digital age where information is immediate and sponsors are quick to flee, “getting through it” is not enough.

Pitfalls of Leaving Out the PR Leg

The “common sense” or “I’m going to speak my mind” or even the “I don’t care what they think, it’s a private matter” approaches all backfire more often than not. Why? Because these approaches do not take into account the multiple audiences that need to be communicated to, nor do they consider those audiences’ multiple points of view on the subject. They fail to understand the job the media have to do, let alone how frustration and anger create the fodder that fuels the final edit of a spurned journalist’s or blogger’s story.

An athlete vehemently denying, lambasting the media during a press conference, arguing and/or creating hostile confrontations with the media NEVER works. Ask Ryan Leaf, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Jeremy Mayfield (among others) how that’s worked out for them. Shutting the media out rarely works either. Again, an athlete may get through the situation, but he’ll be hard pressed to reach his potential regarding how far his brand could truly go when he has an adversarial relationship with the media.

Incorporating the counsel of seasoned strategic communications professionals to assess the media landscape, analyze what’s happening and formulate a sound plan to position the athlete in the most favorable manner possible under negative circumstances, dramatically increases the athlete’s chances of coming out on top in a crisis.

Here are just a few of the many reasons why:

1.  Everyone plays a specific position on a team. The same holds true for the Big 3 – Agent, Lawyer, and PR Team.

Would you play a 6’1″ point guard at center in the NBA? No. Why? Because he’s a point guard and he’s 6’1″. Yes he plays basketball and understands what everyone is supposed to do. But does that qualify him to play center? Probably not. He’ll be overmatched.

The same is true when it comes to agents, lawyers and PR pros. They are all on the same team for their clients, but each one has a specific role to play. Playing to strengths, they are a formidable force both offensively and defensively.

When crisis hits, the agent is usually the first to know and is the one who mobilizes the team to start damage control IMMEDIATELY and protect his client’s interests.  Next, attorneys assess the legal implications and begin formulating the appropriate action plan.  But very soon – and the sooner the better, the athlete has to RESPOND, which means facing the media, facing his fans and tackling the crisis head on.

Preparing an athlete to face the cameras, developing his message, laying out a strategy for communicating with the media, the fans and sponsors, and giving the athlete the confidence he needs to do it all effectively is where the strategic communications team delivers the goods.

Hearing about how sorry an athlete is or how much he or she regrets what happened does not sound sincere nor is it believable when it does not come from the athlete directly. Nobody is buying it when a superstar’s lawyer or agent is telling the world how sorry his client is and giving the world his client’s “heartfelt apology.” Preparing the athlete for dealing with the media directly on all subjects big and small is the best strategy.

2. Winning in the Court of Public Opinion IS Critical

In any crisis, winning the court of public opinion is key to an athlete’s success.

Regardless of how strong the legal arguments are or how incorrect the facts surrounding the crisis may be, if the information is not being properly communicated to media, fans and the online world, you will lose in the court of public opinion.

Your lawyers will advocate for you in the court of law and make sure you’re protected when it comes to all things legal. Strategic communications pros help you win the court of public opinion. And no, it’s not about spinning. When you spin you don’t win. Period.

3. It’s all about building up the Bank of Goodwill

Crisis or not, an athlete’s team is there to protect his interests.  Part of protecting that interest comes in the form of crisis preparedness. While crisis can’t always be anticipated, it can be minimized if the athlete and his team have deposited a healthy balance in the “bank of goodwill,” in the form of solid relationships with the athlete’s employer (his team), sponsors, fans and of course, the media.

Agents do it every day in managing the athlete’s ongoing business relationships, building relationships and fostering trust.  PR professionals do the same thing with the media. Working together with the athlete over the span of his career, PR pros act as the intermediary between athlete and journalist, managing relationships and ensuring the athlete is perceived in a positive way.  Additionally, having a strategic PR plan from Day 1, enables an athlete to more easily be able to bounce back if and when a crisis hits.

4. Ongoing collaboration between the agent, the lawyer and the PR professional throughout an athlete’s career sets him up for a successful retirement.

When the cheering stops and the athlete is not playing in front of tens of thousands in a stadium and millions more on TV, he not only needs something to fall back on, he need a community that supports him. He needs the media, fans and advertisers to still believe in him and understand what he represents. What he stands for is more important in retirement than the sport he played.

Making sure the athlete ends his career with a solid reputation, a loyal fan base, the confidence of advertisers, strong media relationships and well-developed communications skills is a collaborative team effort.  Developing and executing a consistent strategy across multiple channels, agents, attorneys and the athlete’s PR team are all aligned, working to accomplish the same goal.

5. Your Client Shines

Confidentiality, strategic thinking, remaining behind the scenes and maintaining a low profile while counseling and keeping our clients on track is what agents, attorneys and PR strategists do.   At the end of it all, we make our clients look good – no matter what the situation — and give them the tools they need to be successful off the playing field.

Success in sports is achieved through solid game planning and players who can execute. The same holds true when it comes to crisis and reputation management. Prepare, plan and execute. Remember, an athlete benefits by having a core team in place from Day 1 – agents, attorneys and strategic communications professionals who are grooming him or her for long-term success.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.