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Sports Images Take a Beating, Making Effective PR All the More Important

Michael VickThe sports industry has been fraught with public relations challenges the past 10 days. When I began to form this post in my head, the “only” examples were Michael Vick, Brett Favre, Plaxico Burress and Major League Baseball. Today I add to that the National Football League and ESPN.

What could be more appropriate for sports PR case studies than Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who spent 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring, was recently conditionally reinstated by the National Football League and hopes to earn a roster spot and respect; Favre, the three-time NFL MVP quarterback who’s trying to delete the last line of his bio written by critics that identify him as an all-pro waffler after he retired in 2008 from the Green Bay Packers, unretired to play for the New York Jets, retired and after months of speculation, courting, consideration and biceps rehabilitation, told his former NFC nemesis, Minnesota Vikings, he wasn’t coming out of retirement again, after all; Burress, who was indicted by a grand jury on three weapons counts in New York after shooting himself in a nightclub last fall; or Major League Baseball, that endured another leak of premier players (Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz) who failed drug tests that were supposed to be anonymous and destroyed by the player’s union but were not?

All of these sports interests could use a combination of image enhancement, public relations planning and crisis management as they work to regain the good graces of the public and their fan bases. (I recently spelled out how I think Vick could regain the public’s trust in a blog post written by Atlanta Journal Constitution sports columnist, Mark Bradley.

But, it’s not just players who need to step up their relationship management this week. The NFL, actually, 12 out of 32 teams to date, and ESPN are enduring their own public relations storms as a result of company policies made public.

In an effort to prevent non-club provided information from being released, several NFL teams told members of the media this week that they could not post to Twitter, Facebook or other social media outlets from the practice field. The fact that some of these clubs have not restricted the thousands of fans who may post from their iPhones or other mobile devices during open practices, have members of the media reporting unfavorably about the policies. Reporters and editors say it undermines credible media’s ability to relay up-to-the-minute news about teams they cover, something that fans have come to expect from their outlets’ websites and Twitter feeds. They further argue that fans, that think they might see something from the stands, could post inaccuracies that go viral.

USA TODAY/The Indianapolis Star sports columnist, Bob Kravitz said in a column, “These pointless, arbitrary rules by backward-thinking paranoids put us in a competitive disadvantage and prohibit us from doing our jobs.”

ESPN, on the other hand, has had to defend its “ESPN Social Networking Guidelines for Talent” that surprised and resulting in immediate Twitter reacts from Kenny Mayne to Ric Bucher to the network’s legion of fans. Until now, ESPN reporters have enjoyed sharing everything from story preparation anecdotes to responding to their fan’s opinions and questions about stories in the sports media.

sports social mediaI know as a fan and member of the sports media, I enjoy those behind-the-scenes thoughts and visuals from reporters and staffers. Indulging followers with sometimes-innocuous details are what make fans feel like they are part of the network, not just viewers/readers. People that disagree with the new guidelines are concerned that reports will regress tweets to mundane scores and stats, things that they can find on any sports website or ESPN news cycle.

To ESPN’s defense, the network is using these parameters essentially to remind its staff not to post any comments that they would not say on-air or write in company blogs. I live by that mantra – and have deleted plenty of intended tweets and Facebook entries before I hit “send” because I didn’t think that after typing the comments, they were appropriate for the masses. Such should be second nature to people who write or broadcast for a living.

That said, I hope that ESPN reporters prove the network’s policy critics wrong and continue to serve its followers fun tidbits and thoughts in their posts. A network that has built its popularity among dozens of mediums will have to strike a balance as it works with a responsible roster of employees through new channels of communication.

For whatever reason, people like to see powers lose their lofty positions, which likely resulted in the quick negative buzz about these sports interests. That makes ongoing image and company personality practices more important today than ever.

Whether it’s Vick, Favre or your local Little League, quality public relations is a practice to be groomed and nurtured through time. When crisis or image instability strikes, each must look at the situation as a whole and

1) Determine what went wrong and when;

2) Identify third-parties that were detrimentally affected, such as a club, fans, corporate endorsers, communities;

3) Outline methods in which each entity may reach out to people for whom they care – who buy tickets and merchandise – via community interaction, social and traditional media;

4) Follow through sincerely and consistently and

5) Keep it real and show people you mean what you say when it comes to change and trust.

I would love nothing more than to write in the future about how each of these sports entities made up with their critics because they communicated responsibly, often and authentically.

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