Saturday, January 24, 2009

The media has a job to do, just like you

A few years ago, a friend emailed me a story from the Cincinnati paper about Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' relationship with the news media.

The writer described the different approaches various coaches have in working with the press:

Some coaches play the media like a Gibson Les Paul. (See: Kelly, Brian.) Some coaches use their media sessions like couch trips. (See: Huggins, Bob, and Piniella, Lou.) Some use them to send messages to their players. Jack McKeon did that. Marvin Lewis considers dealing with the media en masse a waste of time, like trying to teach Spanish to an English muffin. Fair enough. But dealing with us dull-normal media dopes is part of the job description. Why not make the best of it?

Clearly, the relationship between coaches and the sports media has evolved over the years. In his book "You're Missin' a Great Game," Whitey Herzog, who played in the '50s and '60s, described his former manager Casey Stengel's philosophy on working with reporters:

"He would say 'Give 'em your own story, 'cause if you don't, they're just gonna go ahead and make up their own, and what good'll that do ya?' Then he'd reel off some more whoppers. Then there was his other motto for dealing with the press: 'When they ask you a question,' he said, 'answer it and just keep on talkin'. That way they can't ask you another one.'"

In his 46 years as an NBA player and coach, Warriors coach Don Nelson has seen the evolution first hand.

Recently, he voiced his disappointment about not being able to be as candid when talking to reporters as he was in the past:

"I tell you what's been disappointing. That I can't be myself anymore. That I have to be careful what I say because everybody reads so much into whatever it is I try to be honest about that I can't even talk about things that I used to. I used to be very free with the media. Very open, free and honest, and I'm not allowed to do that anymore. That's probably the worst thing that's happened."

Legendary college baseball coach Gordie Gillespie, who's led teams to four NAIA National Championships, has a healthy perspective on dealing with the press, one that I agree with:

"The media has a job to do, just like you. Try to make their job easier by your cooperation."

At last year's Super Bowl, when asked about his approach to interacting with reporters, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he tries "to answer the questions in a forthright way."

In the mid-1990s, the American Football Coaches Association published a book titled "Football Coaching Strategies." In it is a section on "the coach and public relations."

"When dealing with the press, [the coach] should tell the truth, or say nothing. To mislead the press is neither ethical nor sensible. Most [reporters] are interested in sports and want to portray sports in a positive sense, and very often a coach can give them information that can help them do this. On the other hand, the coach has no right to expect [reporters] to write exactly as the coach sees it."

I've always admired Phil Jackson's relationship with the news media. As this article from 2007 describes, "[Coach] Jackson has a penchant for brutal honesty and a zest for tweaking his players through the news media."

He has derided Lakers center Kwame Brown for having “butterfingers,” dubbed forward Vladimir Radmanovic “a space cadet” and generally bemoaned his players’ lack of interest in reading by suggesting they would rather “play video games and watch porn movies.”

Said Coach Jackson: “I think the best policy is honesty. When you’re not honest, I think you run into Bush-itis."

I've read where former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer does seminars for coaches and players on dealing with the press. As Fleischer puts it:

"The sports press has become just as aggressive as the political press. My job is to help the coaches and the players use mental discipline, think through and to answer those questions accurately and honestly, but you don't have to stir the pot."

Rick Pitino wrote in his book, "Success is a Choice," that dealing with the press is "one of the most difficult parts" of his job. Sometimes, on the occasion when a reporter has written something "wrong or unfair" about him or his team, Coach Pitino will call the writer.

"Maybe there's some sense of truth [to the story]. Maybe it's the result of some sort of misunderstanding. But the only way to find out is to communicate with that person. Otherwise it all gets complicated. You see so much of that: He said this, she said that, then he said something else. Around and around it goes; and where it ends, nobody knows. Only that it's never good. The way to correct this? Pick up the phone. Communicate."

The late George Young (pictured above), the former GM for the NY Giants and 5-time NFL Executive of the Year, wrote extensively about dealing with the media in the book "Football: Rising to the Challenge."

Young's audience for the passage was college players moving to the pros, but his advice has relevance for coaches, as well.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

For a professional athlete, preparation is a crucial element of successful performance in any activity. Dealing with the press is no exception. Players should recognize that dealing with the media is part of being a professional athlete, and knowing how to react to the media before actually being hit with questions would serve them well.

Rule number one is to never criticize another player in the league, your coach, your team, or your teammates. The secret to avoid these mistakes is not to let the media to put you in a position where it would be easy to make inappropriate comments.

A player has to develop the ability to say, "No, I don't want to answer that question." You should be polite. You should be fairly accessible, but you don't have to answer every question. Remember to take your time. Think -- and answer only the questions you feel comfortable answering.

You can talk about yourself. Talk about your performance. Focus on your job, but don't be critical of other people publicly. You can be accessible, but don't let them get you into issues that are internal to the team. Your dealings with the media should center on your job and only your job. Once something is in print, you can't take it back.

There are a whole host of things that I decided firmly in advance to never discuss with the media. When they'd ask me about these issues, I'd laugh and say, "You know I won't answer that." Most of the time, the media would say they were just testing me or that they at least had to try to ask the question.

Follow this strategy and, after awhile, the media will understand you and your limits, and know what they can ask you and what they can't. Once you get to that point, your relationship with the media should be fine.