In my first week as a college athletics administrator I ran into a head coach in the athletic complex hallway who was on his way to a radio interview. I asked him what his three key messages were. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and said, “I don’t know the questions they’re going to ask me.” Whoa. This was unexpected.
My entry into college athletics presented many surprises. One of the biggest was the lack of preparation college coaches put into their press conferences and media interviews. It seemed so odd to me. These are the men and women who preach preparation, game planning, attacking, etc. It made no sense that these same people were going into something so important to their overall success and playing on their heels, letting others dictate the content and flow of the interview.
Following the recent college football media days, it is apparent that collegiate head coaches continue to squander opportunities to position their programs, improve their professional image, and maximize the experience of the student-athletes they recruit and develop. And it’s not difficult or time-consuming. It’s simply a matter of adapting their competitive preparation to their media opportunities (more on that to come).
College coaches have three main channels with which to communicate with key stakeholders:
Personal contact, in the form of one-on-one interactions or speaking engagements in the community;
Social media such as Twitter, Instagram, blog posts, Snapchat, blast emails, etc.;
Media interviews where they face one or multiple reporters, bloggers, and other independent message amplifiers.
Of the three above, media interviews arguably reach the greatest number of casual fans to whom coaches want to communicate and serve as an ideal opportunity to persuade “swing voters” to support their program in good times and, more importantly, bad.
I’m not talking about the media errors that have major implications, such as Urban Meyer choking on a question the entire football world knew he would hear at last year’s B1G Media Days that largely resulted in his suspension.
Rather, it’s the opportunity to continually convey an image, both the coach’s and his or her program; what is the program’s culture and philosophy, what is special about these student-athletes, what makes this school and coaching staff the best choice for a recruit, etc. This is what builds premier programs and coach reputations over time. And a coach that wastes even one opportunity to do these things is not a coach I want to have leading my program or developing my student-athletes.
Collegiate head coaches address the media so often that they become far too comfortable “winging it.” And because nothing bad comes from one of these many interviews, they may consider it a success and move on. This is like approaching a football offensive series with plays devised in the huddle and because the four downs didn’t result in a turnover, it was a success.
The best coaches I’ve seen often prepare for interviews without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. They mentally prepare a short list of messages they want to convey, and then do so repeatedly throughout an interview, often finding ways to bring the interviewer back to the subjects and points they want to reinforce.
The following are three main forms of coach media interactions and a strategic approach to managing the message and generating coverage most beneficial to the program.
Post-game interviews and press conferences
Communications pros should be adept enough to show their coaches where their initial answers will take the media questioning and why certain responses will lead to additional topics the coach shouldn’t be addressing at that time. Then coaches can refine their responses to answer the question and either expand on the issue in a way that best serves the program, or pivot from an uncomfortable topic to a message they want their audiences to hear.
Coaches, don’t have to do it alone. They’ve just been through a competitive contest and have a million things on their mind. Sport administrators or communications managers can drive this. If they’ve been doing their job during the game, they’ve been gauging fan reaction in the venue, monitoring social media, and observing media reaction online and in person.
The communications manager or sport admin should take the coach aside for 3-4 minutes and discuss the three most important points coach wants to get across following this game and share the likely questions/themes that will come up in the post-game presser or scrum. Together, they can discuss the best answers to the tough questions and, more importantly, how to pivot into the messages coach wants to share.
Here are two examples of post-game interviews. And as you watch these, imagine you are an alumnus or the parent of a high school student currently being recruited by these schools.
The first is Fred Hoiberg as coach of Iowa State University while still early in his coaching career. Coach Hoiberg came into this interview knowing he wanted to get certain points across. He doesn’t wait for the questions to be asked. He answers the questions thrown at him and rather than wait for the next he segues into one of the messages he wants to convey.
Now compare that with Bob Huggins’ (West Virginia) post-game interview.
Granted it was a loss, but Coach Huggins skips any opening statement, a golden opportunity in college athletics to share key messages and set the tone for post-game media interactions. He goes on to answer the questions as posed, never pivoting to a larger point he’d like to make and doesn’t seem like he’s given any thought to answering questions he should know are coming.
Weekly Media Availability
There is simply no excuse for not spending some prep time before regularly scheduled weekly media availability. The time is set. The topics that will be covered are for the most part obvious. It’s generally the last contest, the upcoming one, and any other news that has arisen since the last media availability.
Coaches should take 15-20 minutes the day prior to have their communications person share anticipated questions and topics and practice answering them. You don’t want a coach to be answering the questions for the first time in front of the media.
Watch Minnesota Coach PJ Fleck attack this post practice media session.
See if you can determine what he wants his fans, recruits, and others to take away when they see the news reporting from that day.
Coach Fleck is extremely adept at using a question to first make a larger point and then address the specific student-athletes he was originally asked about (4:05 mark). He also answers a question about a specific point and pivots to a larger message that this point supports. If anything, Coach Fleck probably conveys too many messages in any given media availability, but he does an excellent job of repeating the important ones enough that they end up in the edits and stories the media files.
Whether radio, print or television, a coach needs to go into a one-on-one interview with three tight messages he or she wants to get in during that time. Live radio or television is the best opportunity to include their messages as the media cannot edit them out and also provides the greatest chance of saying something regrettable. Even taped interviews provide more opportunity to get these messages across and leave room for less media editorializing. Having tight and quotable statements is what the media wants from coaches and leaves little room for anyone to overly edit responses.
One-on-One print interviews provide an opportunity for coaches to go deeper and expand on topics that will better convey their philosophies and program culture, leading to more fan support and recruit interest. But if unprepared, people tend to ramble and dilute their messages, giving the reporter the opening to interpret and edit statements that may run counter what the coach is stating. Again, don’t let coaches go into these interviews passively and let the reporter steer the topics. Get them on the balls of their feet and move to areas they want to address and statements they want their broader audience to read.
Is it easy? Of course not. Is it worth the time and effort it will take? Very much so. I know coaches have done a million interviews. But their quarterback has also taken a million snaps and they still prepare him for each play and multiple game situations. This is the same thing. As a coach you preach about protecting the ball and limiting unforced errors and these interviews are where you either give the ball away or take it.
By adopting a few easy habits and investing an additional hour or two per week, a smart coach can exponentially increase the program’s success, professional reputation, and increase his or her value to the entire athletic department and university.
Chris Werle is a consumer and sports marketing communications strategist with extensive experience in collegiate and professional athletics. He counsels collegiate athletic administrators and conferences, professional sports franchise executives, leagues and athletes, as well as some of the largest companies in the world on communications, marketing, sports activation and issues management. He can be reached at www.werleconsulting.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.