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A Lesson in How to Handle Volatile Press Conferences

On Thursday night, Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim held his usual media press conference after an upset loss to rival University of Connecticut. When ESPN basketball analyst Andy Katz wanted to ask a question, Boeheim responded by saying he would answer anyone’s questions but Katz, and called him an idiot and a “really disloyal person.” Even though Boeheim was very calm delivering his shots at Katz, it was clear that Boeheim’s emotions were frazzled and challenged after his team, rated number six in the nation, lost their final-ever conference meeting with unrated UConn.

pic of Jim BoeheimThe incident presents some questions. How can athletic department communicators prevent this kind of PR disaster…or can they? Some may even feel that journalists “have it coming” and don’t desire to thwart these kinds of interactions.

There may not be a definitive answer, but here are five alternative methods on how to handle volatile press conferences. The fans and the journalists are not going to be wild about any of these options, but the alternatives can save emotional turmoil for coaches, players, and schools in these tough situations. [Tweet this right now, right here]

1.       Schedule “one-on-one interviews only” after devastating losses. There is no law that says coaches have to appear in a public free-for-all press conference immediately following a game.  In the event of a devastating loss or personal tragedy surrounding a game (athlete injury, event venue emergency, etc.), communications associates should have the freedom to set up an alternate venue arrangement where selected journalists can have one-on-one access to the coach for a prescribed number of minutes after a game. The rest of the journalists can receive their post-game quotes via the sports information director in a timely manner following the game. The practice of issuing quotes from a central source is used at NCAA men’s basketball tournaments and works just fine.

All it would take would be an announcement immediately following the game that the coach is going to meet one-on-one with pre-selected writers, and the rest will receive post-game quotes as soon as the interviews are over. The model of a huge post-game presser is not always in the best interest of the schools, players, and coaches. We shouldn’t be afraid to ditch the model when need be. If conference rules dictate the public post-game presser, maybe they should be re-worked. Not every coach will want this option, but some will.

2.       Offer a well-trained assistant coach instead of the head coach. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski uses this option for post-game television interviews immediately following the game, and it is a good practice. Granted television viewers would rather hear Coach K talk about the game, but we’ve come to accept that associate head coach Chris Collins knows just as much about why they won or lost as Coach K does. Plus, it’s good training for the assistants to be put in the spotlight as well. Their emotion is diffused by the fact that they are substituting for their leader in a tough situation. A presser by the assistant could be followed by selective one-on-ones with the head coach.

3.       Set down protocols and rules for head coaches in public press conferences. Like it or not, coaches are representatives of the school’s reputation. When they sign their contract, they should sign on to the rules and protocols that protect the school’s reputation and honor the position of media members credentialed for the public conferences. If coaches break the rules, they may need to be fined or disciplined by the school or conference.  Head coaches can sometimes have a sense of entitlement about their positions, but departments shouldn’t be afraid to set down strict rules and consequences for coaches to follow.

 4.       All coaches required to speak to the public should have media training that includes how to message the negative. It’s one thing to teach them how to smile and stand in front of a camera, but it’s another to teach them how to use message templates to answer difficult questions. We should be giving them the tools to be successful under pressure. I think we all know that the quality of being calm and professional under pressure is not innate in all coaches. Also, discourage coaches from developing relationships with media members that may cause the coaches to think of them as friends instead of journalists.

 5.       Don’t be afraid to selectively credential media people for public press conferences. I don’t believe that giving a media person a seat courtside to cover the game automatically gets them into the post-game presser. Those are privileged seats, in my thinking, and all schools should not feel pressure to give all the media unrestrained access to their coaches and student-athletes after a game. Just make sure the credentialing process is systematic so journalists know why they are or are not included. This option is a tricky one, as athletic communicators need to be facilitators for journalists to give them information, but if it’s treated as an emergency-only protocol, they’ll get used to it. But, they will justifiably squawk. Many athletic communicators will be hesitant about cutting some journalists out of the loop for fear they will develop an adverse relationship which will hamper or temper coverage. This is a legitimate concern.

Again, this may conflict with conference or television contract rules, and should be a discussion point with those offices.  You may want to consider a two-tiered credentialing process for your events—one to cover the game and one to enter the press conference after. This also sends a message to media that access to the coach after the game is a privilege and not a right.

There are ways to lower the risk of a reputation-hindering event happening at a public press conference following a devastating loss or personal tragedy. Hopefully, schools will actively reconsider the long accepted post-game protocols of wide open press conferences. Coaches and schools should have the option to construct a post-game protocol that puts them in the best light possible, but still gives journalists and fans access.

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