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5 Proactive PR Tips for Sports Figures

It’s official. Tiger Woods announced on his website that he will begin his comeback from the personal mega-bogey that derailed his professional career for four months.

Ben Roethlisberger is still fighting a sexual assault charge, his second such fumble in three years.

Four University of Oregon football players have been in trouble with the law in the month.

These are just some of the dozens of professional sports figures whose off-the-field actions have affected theirs and their organizations’ reputations.

Despite the proliferation of portable recording devices and media’s unprecedented coverage, athletes and coaches who enter the public limelight because of their talents, continue to endure public humiliation because of their own poor personal decisions. It’s for that reason I want to reach out via SportsNetworker with a PR primer. It could even be looked upon as an image savior.

To anyone in the public eye – which some would argue, includes all of us in the multi-media age – I offer the following to this group with which I’ve long worked, for when they feel weak and defenseless against alluring men/women, the temptation of crime or any kind of action that maybe construed as controversy. The following tips should be read and re-read, reviewed before each competitive season and before they clean out their lockers at the end.

As we’ve learned, sports news doesn’t have an off-season.

1) Consider where you go and with whom you travel, whether it’s to the grocery store, restaurant or a nightclub, and leave controversy and miscues behind.

Why does it matter whether you hang out with your boys or Dr. Phil? You’re a new member of the Smith City Supersonics and have just signed some lucrative endorsement contracts. Your buddies from home, who have traveled to Smith City to make you “feel comfortable” in your new home have criminal records, and have no problem spending your income on illegal drugs…and using them in your home.  Whether you engage in criminal activity or not, one leaked photo, one accusation suggested to a member of the media or inadvertent public outburst about your involvement with this group, and you can say goodbye to the credibility you began to build with community outreach and high-scoring performances. More than one athlete has been permanently been benched because of poor personal choices he made any time during his career.

2) Nothing can be gained by going to a bar after midnight.

Charles Davis, a former college football player at the University of Tennessee who is now an NFL analyst for FOXSports and NFL Network, recalls something one of his position coaches advised in the 1980s that remains more than true today.

“Coach had a saying, ‘only two things in life are undefeated: p**sy and alcohol.And, neither one will ever be beat!’ Guys that I played with quote it every time something rolls across the wire like it did with Ben Roethlisberger. The temptations are as old as civilization and especially when you live in the public eye, you won’t win,” Davis said.

I would add one thing to the coach’s list of things that will defeat you: firearms (especially if they’re not registered).

If you want to enjoy a couple of cocktails, do it in private, and give no one reason to produce visualsor stories of you acting unlawfully. If you need to feel the pull of a trigger, visit a certified, secured shooting range or go hunting.

3) Be honest.

This goes not only for when you get in trouble, but especially in good times. Take time to foster relationships with fans, general consumers (who may use the products you endorse) and the media. If you build a reputation as a person who is trusted, reliable and generous, chances are that if anything negative arises, a reputation’s blow will be muted and you will be given a benefit of the doubt instead of being judged guilty from the outset.

However, if photos are leaked on the Internet or stories are posted about an alleged wrongdoing, immediately own up to it. Consult with a publicist who is versed in crisis management and follow his or her advice.

The best way to find the right person is to seek referrals from people who have been there. If you know of someone who hired a crisis PR specialist who provided sensible guidance with positive results,hire her!

We live in a forgiving society, especially when it comes to sports heroes. The sooner you admit to a mistake, the sooner everyone heals and you’re hopefully forgiven. This not only benefits your conscience, but your marketability and organizations’ image. Any kind of half-story or cover-up only extends controversy and keeps your negative story in the news.

4) Don’t drink ‘n’ dial – or text, email or leave provocative voice mails.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of CSI or even contacted your local service provider about harassing calls, you know that everything is traceable. You can erase texts, but they’re always out there. The minute you hit “send,” those words are potentially accessible to media and authorities. If you’re sober, married and still want to hit “send” to the girl you flirted with at a private party you attended the night before, think about possible repercussions to your reputation and relationships with your family, organization and sponsors, not to mention how they might affect your future earnings opportunities.

5) Take control of YOUR message.

If you don’t take part in conversation about you, others will create an image for you based on what they read and hear…and it might not be pretty.

Woods’s image eroded not only because of leaks regarding his private indiscretions that went public, but the way he closed himself off to what was being said. The fact that he, nor anyone from his camp spoke or appeared immediately after the November car accident allowed the public and media to speculate, which quickly exploded into social media discussions. Rumors and discussion based on conjecture continued because he didn’t take control of the message. Whether you believe Woods owed the public an explanation or not, this story could have been muted if he was advised to take control of the message immediately.

The best example of a celebrity getting ahead and taking control of a controversy before people could misspeak is David Letterman. From a public relations standpoint, he handled the news of his personal affairs and subsequent extortion threats immediately and with candor.

The fact is, we’re all now celebrities to a degree. Embarrassing video and salacious stories are only clicks away. If you’re an athlete or coach, whether it is college or professional, you assume a greater responsibility. In addition to your own brand, you take on the image of your organization, its league, sponsors and trust of a fan base – and them in you.

It goes back to PR 101: If you don’t want the story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal … or today, on TMZ’s front page, think twice, three and four times about your actions. It will save you a lot of grief, money and work to rebuild what could have been a consistently lucrative career.

Or, as former college star and NBA player Jalen Rose posted on Twitter, Tuesday night (@jalenrose): “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”

*”Keep Your Putter in the Bag” is the title of a segment Steve “The Homer” True started after Woods’ troubles became public. While created in jest, it lured additional attention to his daily radio show on 540ESPN in Milwaukee.


Image by Jeffrey Beall

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6 Responses to 5 Proactive PR Tips for Sports Figures

  1. Todd E. Jones March 26, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    Nice. This is good stuff Gail! I don't advice athletes, but it might happen at some point. This is a terrific primer with lots of good points. Thanks!

  2. gailsideman March 26, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Thanks, Todd. I appreciate the feedback.

  3. Rob Smith March 26, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    This is great advice for pro, college and high school athletes:

    I think athletes’ enjoy the fame and privileges that come along with it but they still want to go out act a fool once in a while like the average Joe. But like you said in your post these guys got to think twice before doing anything.

    That quote from the 80’s Tennessee quote is stuck in my head. Young men need to learn no matter how attractive the girl is or whatever she says never, never take pictures of your private areas or anything else that will hurt your brand. It might have to become mandatory for pro leagues to issues out professional adult babysitters for a few these grown athletes. People will keep pics, videos and safe it for a rainy day if a relationship goes sour. Can we say Greg Oden.

  4. gailsideman March 26, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, Rob. These guys (and in some instances, women) have to remember that they are adults who have signed up not just to play and make money, but to act responsibly.

    Do we all do or say stupid things sometimes? Absolutely. But most of us don't have the weight of our personal and organizational brands on our shoulders. That is what an athlete or coach accepts the minute he/she signs a contract or commits to a school.

  5. Anita Lobo March 27, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    Hi Gail,
    This is very good advise. I can't help feel a twinge of sympathy for the many athletes who do the right thing, but have to fight to keep their lives private and think twice before going to any public place, to have a drink or meal. Must be frustrating to be in a golden cage, all the time!

  6. gailsideman March 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Thanks, Anita. Yes, guys are always under the microscope, mostly because tabloid media in particular, know that there's a chance that one of them will slip up. (If one, does, won't they all kind of thought.)

    That said, we're all in the spotlight to a degree. I didn't do anything illegal, but in a recent chat with a colleague from years ago, we both agreed that we're thrilled that there weren't camera phones that recorded video and audio when we enjoyed our “off the field” hours!

    Thanks for your thoughts, Anita.

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