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Media Training for NFL and College Football Players: Sign Us Up!

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In the 21st century, we could all use the kind of media training provided for college football stars and NFL Draft hopefuls. Quick -- describe yourself in pithy, media-friendly sound bytes that will translate into lucrative business deals. Yeah, I couldn't do it either.

The days of working at IBM for 40 years and retiring with a pension that will actually fund one's golden years are over. Corporations have proven in this recession that they are happy to fire expensive, experienced employees in favor of younger, cheaper models. Even public sector jobs aren't "safe" in the current budget-battle climate.

What used to be known as "office politics" is now a mandatory mainstream part of succeeding in any field. We have multiple bosses to please and our supposedly private ruminations on religion, politics and sex may cost us professional opportunities. Like it or not, we're all the CEO's of our own careers these days. We may not earn his paycheck, but every fan is in the same professional planning boat as Robert Griffin III. Most of us just don't know it.

NFL owners like Jerry Jones may be close cousins to circus owner P.T. Barnum and adhere to his maxim that "There's no such thing as bad publicity," but players best heed the advice of their media training coaches and proceed cautiously into murky media waters. While Al Davis built a dynasty on "bad boy" mystique, the individual 21st NFL employee is expected to be more Boy Scout than Black Hole monster.

Bill Belichick, in a rare moment of diplomacy during his televised pre-Super Bowl presser in 2008, referred to the media as "the conduit of information from the team to the fans." This is a rather benign characterization of an institution that must seem to players new in the spotlight to lie in wait like a fairy tale troll, ready to crush newly knighted Sir Pigskin at his first ill-advised word. Oscar Wilde bemoaned, "In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press."

Avoiding a negative public image is self-defense for teams as well as players. Becoming a media target through behavior or poor communication skills can easily translate to negative performance. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst pulled no punches when he said, "You can crush a man with journalism." Ryan Leaf may well have imploded if he had been locked in a Tibetan monastery under a vow of silence, but more sensitive players like Ricky Williams certainly weren't aided on any level by having their every move tracked with salacious zeal.

The Society of Professional Journalism exhorts members to "Seek Truth and Report It." Athletes and celebrities must sometimes wonder when this became "Seek the great sound byte by bludgeoning the subject into an entertaining or scandalous utterance -- preferably both." The "news" has evolved into an entity with a seemingly irrevocable entertainment component. Outlets vie with social media for instantaneous, often unsubstantiated, reporting and with American Idol for audiences. Colleges and NFL Draft prep facilities have turned to professional media trainers to prepare their players for that reality. Those of us without managers and agents willing to fund this training can still benefit from the principles employed.

Media Meets Public Relations. Elite training company Athletes Performance contracts with 180 Communications to coach NFL hopefuls in their quest for that life-changing NFL phone call. Preparation for the NFL's Annual Selection Meeting takes place in the fishbowl of the modern 365-days-a-year NFL. And the measuring, testing and judging aren't just physical.

Director of Corporate Communications Lee Gordon spends time before the Draft at every AP facility, working with the NFL prospects individually and in groups. Although he utilizes specific training techniques and draws on his years of experience as a reporter with CBS and FOX, Gordon's central philosophy is that athletes have a unique power and he wants them to retain self-direction of that power.

Brad Phillips, President of Phillips Media Relations and author of The Media Training Bible, has a similarly humanistic approach. He is adamantly opposed to "spin and evasion" and concentrates on helping clients to find their own method of presenting themselves to the public "in the best possible way while remaining honest, accountable and transparent."

Both media educators stress that many lessons stem from basic common sense and fall under the easier-said-than-done category of "think before you speak." When I once tried to explain to my teenaged stepson that the way he said something was as important as what he was saying he exclaimed, "You can't expect me to go through the rest of my life thinking about every word that comes out of my mouth!" Well, um, yes I can. And so will your bosses, clients and customers.

We can tilt at the media windmill (and we all know how that worked out for Don Quixote) or we can use the communications wind to power our professional lives.

Branding. One of the current business buzzwords is "branding." It's easy to roll one's rhetorical eyes at what sounds like somewhat nauseating PR-speak. However, Robert Griffin III is a superstar in part because he understands that he owns what Lee Gordon says he refers to as "RGIII, Inc." Like most of us, NFL players have no guaranteed contracts and our respective livelihoods depend upon self-preservation instincts that rely on self-knowledge.

Second-generation NFL royalty like Peyton Manning or college sensations like Tim Tebow probably know their "brand" well before hitting the pros. However, less high-profile players and those from smaller markets usually need some guidance. In branding young clients, both Gordon and Phillips begin by studying every available piece of media on that player. Do certain "brandable" traits emerge?

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (a 180 Communications client) graduated from college in approximately 10 minutes and is generally one of the smarter humans in the National Football League -- and probably the entire state of Minnesota. (No, that's not a shot at the Upper Mid West.) Ponder's emerging brand is as an extremely intelligent student of the game with a very high character. Fortunately, that image is partially available since Peyton Manning evolved his brand from simply intellectual to actually funny.

While this kind of labeling seems antithetical to good old-fashioned American individualism, nothing could be more true to our culture than product packaging for best sales positioning. Players who refuse to "package" or "brand" themselves will lose out on business opportunities -- and they'll get branded anyway since the media (like nature) abhors a vacuum and will fill it with something suitably entertaining. Surely, it's better to pick your own image.

Gordon uses a unique exercise to zero in on public personas for his young charges. He has them come up with 50 self-descriptive words. They are to ask friends, coaches, family members to describe them -- and to describe them honestly. Not only does this give them an arsenal of adjectives with which to work, it is an introduction into the kind of unflinching self-evaluation required on a daily basis for the lifetime of a career. Personally, I haven't had the nerve to do this yet, but it seems like a professional necessity these days. We all have to understand that we much define ourselves or be defined by others.

Mr. Phillips addresses this professional "half therapy, half training" function by providing a mirror for his clients that reflects both what message they are sending out into the world and what the consequences of that message might be. Anti-social logos on tattered hoodies may feel like the client's authentic self until it is explained that this rebel image will limit mainstream endorsement opportunities. Unless one is Andre Agassi and can turn it into a sexy marketing handle. Swimmer Ryan Lochte has leveraged athletic talent and fortunate genetics into a "ditsy hunk" image that has landed him a broadcast career. (Phillips' phrase not mine, Mr. Lochte - please address your response accordingly.) Warren Sapp is a fast-talking clowner. Kurt Warner is the world's nicest QB who just also happens to be gorgeous. Belichick and Eli Manning have made a powerful brand out of having virtually no public personality whatsoever. Can Manti Te'o become the "sadder-but-wiser linebacker who is rededicated to his linebacking craft?" Stay tuned.

Sound Bytes and Messaging. Those 50 words will come in handy here. If your stock in trade is the ability to play special teams, corner and emergency WR then "versatility" is a big part of your message. Brad Smith turned his "Swiss Army Knife" nickname into a lucrative contract with the Buffalo Bills. Both Gordon and Phillips stress sincerity in formulating both the client's message and in helping them to come up with transition lines, summary statements, on-point adjectives to use in interviews so that they will make sure that their media presence is what they want it to be. While these training experts do not advocate prepared sound bytes, they emphasize the ability to keep a conversation focused.

Unfortunately, this can result in homogenous post-game statements that can be as original as dust. Can you really blame them? In his entire professional career, I have heard Peyton Manning say one thing one time that wasn't the essence of grace: in the post-game press conference after a very tough playoff loss he mentioned that "we had some protection problems." This was back in the days before his Super Bowl win and the press immediately translated a rather tactful statement of truth into blaming his offensive line for the loss. Manning and his line had to listen to that the entire off-season.

Reporters are after the provocative five-second utterance that will "tease" their broadcast. They all know the story they are chasing before they begin the interview; this is not about an exchange of information -- it's about drama. See above on entertainment. Can athletes be interesting without being controversial? The ones gifted with quick wits or extraordinary charisma can. Russell Wilson makes his relentlessly positive team-first message so compellingly genuine that you don't want to play for him -- you want to vote for him.

Social Media or "Guard Your Google Search." Mr. Gordon uses the "Google Search" mantra to emphasize the crucial nature of keeping one's cool. Any major mistake will become the athletes' legacy in the search engines. Forever. Mr. Phillips calls the same phenomenon "the seven second stray." In a 50-minute interview, the seven seconds that went off-message and resulted in an untoward statement will be all that anyone ever sees of that interview. This is akin to the one time you got suckered into commenting on the boss' new hairstyle. Do you know how many stellar presentations you'll have to do to overcome that gaff?

The arrival of Facebook and Twitter has placed us all in a Promethean situation. It gives athletes, celebrities and public figures unfiltered access to their fans, for good or ill. "Freedom of speech" is a relative term these days. This provision of our Bill of Rights refers to freedom from unpleasant governmental repercussions to one's most ill considered declaration. It does not apply to employers or business partners.

Rashard Mendenhall had every right to express his opinion of the mass celebrations at Osama Ben Laden's death. He isn't by any means the only person with that opinion. However, in the patriotic fervor of the moment, his tweet upset a lot of the public. And his sponsors promptly pulled his endorsement contract. Millions gone in a heartbeat. Then there's the politician with the unfortunate last name that is currently trying to resurrect his career after a seemingly fatal case of Twitter stupidity. Are any other examples really needed? Former player and coach/current analyst Herm Edwards speaks every year to the incoming NFL rookies. A key part of his message? "Don't press send."

Want a private conversation with your friends and family? Pick up a phone. Burn with a political or social conviction? Go volunteer. Have an opinion about your boss? Don't. Press. Send.

Our Better Angels. The fourth estate's function in Western civilization is to provide the public with access to information and provide a checking function for those in power. Perhaps it's too much to ask that they also channel Abraham Lincoln to inspire "the better angels of our nature." However, if the media seems content to lust for the salacious, football players can enhance their off-field legacy by spending their considerable public currency doing more than not sounding like a jerk. They can actually not be a jerk.

When preparation and character meet media opportunity, we can achieve impact. Backup QB Brady Quinn transformed his national brand in one press conference. He went from pretty boy draft bust to inspirational leader on the day after his teammate Jovan Belcher suffered a breakdown that led him to commit both murder and suicide. Quinn's plea for societal connection and understanding was something no NFL fan will forget. And he was speaking from the heart in the best traditions taught by both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Gordon:

I know when it happened I was sitting in my head thinking, "What could I have done different?" When you ask someone how they're doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you're doing, are you really telling them the truth? We live in a society of social networks... it seems like half the time we're more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships we have in front of us. Hopefully people can learn from this and try to actually figure out if someone's battling something on the inside more than what they may be revealing on a day-to-day basis.

And that's communication.

Special thanks to Mr. Gordon and Mr. Phillips for their time and to Michelle Grant of 180 Communications and Peggy Iralson of Athletes Performance for their assistance.

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