How much to tell the media? (AFL football example)

There was an interesting comparison of media management at the recent Hawks v Western Bulldogs match at the MCG.
The Bulldogs President (Smorgan) and the Hawks President (Kennett) were sitting opposite each other on the head table at the President’s lunch.
When I started consulting for the Hawks as their Communication Advisor in 2007, one of the things we talked about was the pressure placed on the team, when the leaders of the club make definitive statements in media interviews about where the club will finish at the end of the year.

Saying “We’ll make the finals or else” to a journalist is like a red flag to a bull. They’ll bring it up in future interviews and may compare every week’s performance with this past statement, which puts you on the defensive and reduces your ability to get other messages out.
It can lock you in a time warp; “You said at the start of the year you will finish 1st or 2nd, it’s half-way through the season and you’re 5th. Has the plan failed?”

Managing the media

The single most valuable thing to understand about the media is; they need a story. The journalist is measured by the strength of the stories s/he writes.
When speaking to the media, you need to be clear on the stories you want to focus on and the level of detail you will go into. If you’re unclear about these 2 things, the media tend to be in control.
Now, here’s the interesting comparison between the Western Bulldogs and the Hawks in 2011.

Ultimatum shared with the media world?

At the start of the season, Bulldog’s President David Smorgan was asked to identify the pass mark for 2011 on Channel 9’s Footy Show, he said:

“We have to play in a grand final and obviously we’d love to win a grand final. We have no excuses.”

Even though Smorgan denied it was an ultimatum, the ‘pass mark’ story hounded the ‘Dogs for the rest of the season. Some say it put unwarranted pressure on the coach and the players. In the words of sports writer Andrew Leonard;

“Eade had his metaphoric guillotine marked pre-season in a Footy Show interview with club President David Smorgon, where he uttered the famous words of “pass mark in 2011” would be a grand final appearance.”

‘We’ll look at it at the end of the season’

Jeff Kennett was criticized for not renewing Alastair Clarkson as coach when he came out of contract. The Hawks response was always;

“The board has said it will look at this at the end of the season.”

At the recent AFL President’s lunch, Jeff revealed that Hawthorn had set Coach Alastair Clarkson a KPI of finishing in the top four, and implied that this must be met if he was to be offered another contract.
He did NOT announce this to the media. (Clarkson was reappointed 2 weeks ago for a further three years).
While it could be argued that the decision to wait until the end of the season cost Hawthorn more to keep Clarkson, the media message put far less public pressure on Clarkson and his team.
If you’d like to master media communication, consider: