How Mystic Mac and Mighty Maria Delivered the Right Message

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Conor McGregor (left) and Maria Sharapova faced some significant setbacks in the past 72 hours. (Photos by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today and Getty Images, respectively.)

Within the past 72 hours, two elite athletes seemingly at the top of their game suffered significant setbacks. However, it’s how they responded which has strangely enough, made them victorious.

On Saturday night, brash Irish mixed martial artist (some language NSFW), Conor McGregor, lost his first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight to Nate Diaz. McGregor is the 145lb champion, but stepped up two weight classes to fight a replacement opponent in Diaz for a non-title 170lb match. After predicting a first-round knockout of his opponent, McGregor instead lost in the second round to a submission.

Many rejoiced to see the trash talker finally taste defeat. However, McGregor won the post-fight PR test with not only his humble interview, but also this post on Instagram (some language NSFW). McGregor said he took a risk, it didn’t pay off, but he’ll learn from it and come back stronger. No excuses, no complaints; just what he learned and how he’ll get better.

Then, just this morning (March 8), tennis superstar Maria Sharapova was going to have a major announcement. Her news? She failed a drug test at the Australian Open. A drug she had been using for 10 years had become, as of just 68 days ago, illegal.

Rather than wait for news services to pick up the failed drug test and have pundits weigh in before she said anything, Sharapova did the best thing she could: Got out in front of the news, controlled the message, and positioned herself to be the news source. While she has been put on immediate suspension and has already lost some sponsors, she accepted responsibility and outlined what had happened (she failed to read an email that outlined the drug in question as now illegal).

Media often relish the narrative of a rise and fall of a prominent figure, whether it be a celebrity or an athlete. However, what they, and our culture, love even more, is the rise, fall, and comeback of a celebrity or athlete. After all, we are a land of second chances, just as long as you do it the right way (See pitcher Andy Petite admitting to taking performance enhancing drugs vs. Rafael Palmeiro vehemently denying it, only to be caught using them).

I predict that both McGregor and Sharapova will be great comeback stories. They’re already off to a great start by winning the initial PR battle by accepting three important things:

  • Accepted Responsibility: Neither made excuses; they took ownership of their error and were upfront and honest about the respective situations. It shows the public they recognize what happened, do not pass the blame, and own up to the shortfalls.
  • Accepted the Punishment: They realize they made mistakes, understood the magnitude of them, and realized the consequences for their actions.
  • Accepted the Challenge: McGregor sees how this gives fuel to all of his detractors and makes some of his trash talk now seem silly. Sharapova understands this may mean a two-year ban and lost sponsorship dollars. However, both vowed to learn from these events (McGregor says you either win or you learn), and admitted they will be better professionals for it.

While you or I may never hoist a UFC title belt or a Wimbledon trophy above our heads, if we find ourselves in a situation where things come up short, we can follow in McGregor’s and Sharpova’s footsteps with similar responses to aid the road to recovery.

The Hoarding Issue at KU and Why It’s Not a Problem

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(Photo by Orlin Wagner, Salina Journal)

There is a hoarding issue in Lawrence, Kan., and specifically within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The University of Kansas (KU) men’s basketball team has just clinched a share of their 12th straight Big XII Conference title and a 12th consecutive trophy. Let’s put that into perspective. When KU won the first title in this streak:

  • It began three consecutive, four-year classes to attend KU who would never know life without their men’s team taking home the conference title
  • KU has won consecutive titles four more years than anyone can currently be President of the United States
  • Twitter had yet to be invented
  • Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was the most downloaded song of the year
  • George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term as US President
  • Gas was around $1.94 per gallon … so I guess some things have stayed the same

This feat trails only UCLA by one year for most all time, in an era where parody in college athletics may be at an all-time high. They also did it this year with arguably the best job done by their future Hall-of-Fame coach, Bill Self. As a blue-blood program, they’ve had All-Americans, staunch rim protectors, and dynamic playmakers. While this year’s team was good, it seemed to lack some of those standout performers in prior years.

But that didn’t matter.

What resulted was the continuation of KU’s hoarding problem in the form of conference trophies.

So what’s the secret? A multitude of things: a combination of KU’s dominance at home (it’s won nearly 40 straight), a raucous home crowd, and hell, maybe even the ghost of Phog Allen himself. But it boils down to an Oklahoma State graduate who was passed over by Missouri … Bill Self.

Each year, the master motivator finds a way to orchestrate the best from each of his players, while executing a delicate balance of tough love tactics. Perhaps the best part is any coach or midday manager can practice some of the same principles Self has seemed to master:

  • Play to Your Team’s Strengths: KU doesn’t have a dominant player this year, so instead, KU focused on its point guards pushing the pace and ball movement throughout the team. In the workplace, solid work by the entire team helps lift the burden of work on any one individual while helping the team accomplish its goals.
  • Expect Greatness: Despite replacing his entire lineup several times during the streak, Self never expected any less from his players than continuing to challenge for the title. Inside office walls, while much may be given to employees (flexible schedules, jeans on Fridays, team outings), much should also be expected … and then their performance should be recognized and rewarded.
  • Press the Right Buttons: Self likes to publicly question his team’s toughness in interviews when the team may have lost one or two games or he feels they’re not playing to their potential. After a shaky three-game stretch a month ago, Self again wondered if his team was “too soft” and they promptly found their form on their way to a 12th straight title. While calling employees soft in the workplace isn’t appropriate for many reasons, tuning it to what motivates each of your employees – regular compliments, tough love, subtle suggestions – is the perfect balance to have your team running on all cylinders.

Universities Miss the Mark Trying to Protect their Brand

KSU
(Photo by Ann Williamson/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

 

Universities have the challenge of constantly being in the risk management business, while trying to promote the education and advancement of its students. In the past week we saw two universities with communication missteps. Kansas State University (K-State) tried to further remind its students how it thinks they should behave at sporting events. The University of Tennessee (UT) attempted to showcase its positive athletic department culture despite being in the midst of a federal lawsuit charging them with a hostile sexual environment.

Both instances involve collegiate athletics; something that inherently stirs passion from fans, students, alumni, and those from opposing schools.

UT(Photo by Randy Sartin/USAToday Sports)

Quick Backgrounds:
K-State:
Required students to sign a sportsmanship pledge at the start of the current school year. They followed this up by banning* the fan-favorite song, Sandstorm at basketball games, due to profane chants that had been heard when playing their in-state rival. Prior to their most recent home-game against the same in-state rival, K-State issued a video, again reminding its students how to act.

UT: All 16 of its varsity coaches held a press-conference without the athletic director (who was out of town) or school president to reassure player (and more directly current and future recruits) that despite current federal lawsuit accusing the school of a hostile sexual environment, that everything is fine.

Why these were missteps:
K-State: There is certainly merit in K-State trying to establish what they deem as good sportsmanship behavior. But:

  • A “sponsorship pledge” and then repeated reminders of “you better be good” is incredibly juvenile. The additional “taking your song away if some of you can’t play nice” and a reminder video before the game were repeated reminders of “we don’t trust you.”
  • If you want a target audience to change their behavior, treat them as adults, instead of cranky 5-year-olds. Or else, they’ll act just like those cranky 5-year-olds and do the opposite of what you want them to do.
  • As it relates to your in-state rival, realize that not everyone is going to extend open and welcoming arms to them at their home games. Just imagine if they tried this at Auburn and Alabama. There are always a few bad apples…when that happens, don’t pretend it’s the whole bunch.

UT: The coaches may have had the right idea of trying to get in front of the story and insert their own narrative into the current message. But:

  • It wasn’t until later in the news conference when the head football coach –whose players were at the center of some of these allegations – finally addressed who matters most by saying, “Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to out to the alleged victims.”
  • These comments should have been at the start of the news conference to express empathy. Your target audience doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care. All 16 coaches should have focused less on how great their culture is and how they have a renewed focus on protecting their student athletes and all students at the University.
  • They lauded the “culture” of the university and departments as the best it’s been, cohesive and united, despite charges that the university “enabled a culture that led to sexual assaults and then administrators influenced the handling of discipline by accused athletes.”
  • While not addressing the lawsuit may have been expected, saying everything is fine when it clearly isn’t causes your audience to roll their eyes in disbelief instead of nodding their heads in agreement with your message.

What they should have done:
K-State: Crafted an open letter to fans at the start of the year by the athletic director welcoming them to the school year, while including these “sportsmanship” parameters about what makes the students and its fans great.

UT: Never held the press conference. Now we’re talking about their misguided message which is the exact opposite of what the coaches hoped to accomplish with their “press conference.”

With these improvements, the schools’ brands can hit the mark instead of seeming misguided.

 

*The school has since reinstated the song and the athletic director thanked students for adhering to the new sponsorship pledge (even as some still did the profane chant, perhaps out of frustration and/or rebellion).

The Play That Helped the Tide Roll

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Alabama’s tide rolled to is fourth title in seven years. (Photo by AP)

Last night we saw the University of Alabama Crimson Tide capture their fourth national title in the past seven years. However, it boiled down to one play based on planning and communication; both what was said, and what body language tried to hide. It went a little something like this (via SB Nation):

A routine kickoff became a trick play that turned the game’s tide solely in Alabama’s favor. Read this breakdown of how many things had to go right to pull it off, including the player catching the pass actually dropping it half the time in practice.

Special teams may sometimes be considered the stepchild to the offense and defense in American football, but more often than not, it plays the biggest role in shifting momentum within the game.

The Alabama coaches had a plan if they saw Clemson in a certain formation on kickoffs. Sure enough, with the game tied in the fourth quarter and just over 10 minutes to play, it was time to try it. In summation:

  • The kicker began his approach just like any other kickoff; then suddenly altered the direction of the kick at the last second.
  • The receiver – who is actually a defensive back on the team (don’t worry, this stuff happens on special teams) – started running his route like a normal kickoff. He suddenly altered his route to the outside just after the ball was kicked.
  • The ‘receiver’ caught the kick in midair and then bolted out of bounds to secure the ball for Alabama.

Simply, they saw a different formation that matched their trick pay, so they executed their plan. Some may call it genius, but at its core it is about having a plan for different scenarios. When the opportunity presents itself, implement the plan that gives you the advantage.

This is true for any communications plan. In this instance, they not only verbally communicated on the sideline, but the players also had to master their non-verbal skills until the right time to help pull the play off.

While many things have to go right in those scenarios, ultimately the better plan, and the core practice it has been given, prevails. Even if it only works half the time in ‘practice,’ from Alabama’s football team to your communications team, anyone can follow the same game plan:

  • The stakes are high
  • You trust your players and have instilled confidence in your team
  • You communicate the plan and the players understand their important roles
  • It catches your opponent by surprise
  • Take the shot

Hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Alabama took their shot and once again, the ‘Tide is Rollin.’

 

 

 

No Fluke, Just a Winning Formula

KC Star-Royals-John Sleezer

Photo by John Sleezer, KC Star

The Kansas City Royals – yes the same team that were consistent 100-game losers less than 10 years ago – are your World Series Champions.

In fact, in the past two years, they have won two American League Championships, their first-ever Central Division title, and a World Series title. They have also increased their win total in each of the past six years and set a new attendance record in 2015. Not to mention, seeing Jimmy Fallon and a rapping Bret Saberhagen, shooting paintballs at Jimmy Kimmel, and having Paul Rudd celebrate with them in the locker room. So yeah, things are pretty good for the Kansas City Royals and their fans.

In the midst of this upward trajectory, the Royals have done some incredible things on the biggest stages, namely in the playoffs.

As noted by The Kansas City Star, eight of their 11 playoff wins this year came after trailing in the sixth inning or later. Six of those comebacks have erased deficits of two runs or more. No team has ever done that, or had ever accomplished the following in the playoffs:

  • They came from behind to win eight times
  • They came back from multiple-run deficits seven times
  • They scored 51 runs in the seventh inning or later
  • They won three World Series games that they trailed in the eighth inning

“Of all the crazy Royals’ numbers, this might be the best,” EPSN baseball analyst Buster Olney pointed out. “KC scored 40 runs this postseason 8th inning/later; no other team had more than 5.”

While most teams were winding down, the Royals were just warming up.

Outside of the team stats, they also featured some individual notes with having the first Brazilian-born player to play in a World Series (Paulo Orlando), the first player to make their Major League debut in a World Series (Raul A. Mondesi), and the player who captured the record for the longest single postseason hitting streak in MLB history at 15 games (Alcides Escobar).

This was not only a memorable World Series win, but it was an especially historic one, for a team that had been historically bad. While the team has captivated and re-engaged a city starving for a championship from its football (it’s been 40 years) and baseball (it had been 30 years) teams, there were also some key communications takeaways that any team – or organization – can learn from as it builds a winning culture of its own:

1. Find What Works for You: The Royals developed a team and a way of playing baseball that best fit 1) what they could afford 2) what fit their players’ abilities and 3) what best fit their ballpark. The result were mid-market contracts that featured players with speed, athleticism, and defense that combined with starting pitching bolstered by the best bullpen in baseball.

For your organization, you may not have the biggest payroll or be in the biggest market, but focus on the strengths of your people and what you do really well. Who knows, how you do it may change the way the game is played…just like the Royals.

2. Trust Your People: Manager Ned Yost trusted his players and let them play without fear, such as Eric Hosmer’s daring dash home in Game 5. But the Royals also trusted the fans and their support, as highlighted with their “Thank You Kansas City” shirts and credit in celebration speeches during their championship rally.

Whether it be players on the field or people in your company’s positions, show them you believe and trust in them, and they’ll deliver the results you need…sometimes even ones you never saw coming, like an improbable slide across home plate.

3. Never Give Up: The records I list above are all the evidence we need that this team never quit and always believed they would find a way to win. In a game known for its numbers, the Royals showed all it takes is a belief in oneself and one team to suddenly tip the odds in your favor.

Personally I’ve been in situations where on paper, there was seemingly no way to accomplish a project in a timeframe provided. For example, I learned of a myriad of projects that needed to be completed – including some that had never been done by the company before – as it prepared to go public in just 13 days. Guess what? We made it happen. Not because we thought it was impossible – okay, maybe a little bit – but because we rallied to the challenge and believed in ourselves to get it done.

This Kansas City Royals team will be remembered for many things: the way they played, the connection with their city, and the way they always found a way to win. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons they captivated their audiences was simple: by doing those three things above, they were just like us.

‘Fear Nothing, Attack Everything’

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(Photo: kcchiefs.com)

Two hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how long it’s been since Kansas City Chiefs defender Eric Berry went from beginning his journey against cancer to, remarkably, reporting back for training camp. After their game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 20, it was discovered that a lump in Berry’s chest was not just an injury from the field, but rather a much larger affliction: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Fast forward to this week on July 28 when Berry addressed the media after practice on his first day back. He sat at a table with his father, James, and his mother, Carol. He took his audience through a journey that none of us had any insight on, until now. Berry described the tears, the struggles, the challenges of six rounds of chemotherapy (Dec. 10 – May 13), and the goal of just trying to do five push-ups a day.

Berry also talked about his decision to take chemotherapy directly into his veins so that he could still work out and stay in shape for football. As a result, his veins now have track marks all over them, but Berry knew that was going to happen if he chose that option. This is a person who amazingly gained a pound during treatment.

After hearing the initial news, many rallied around Berry to support him on his journey, not knowing how long it would last. At the same time, I couldn’t but help feel a personal connection to him, only because I had begun a similar journey as well. On Nov. 20 – the last game Berry would play that season – I had just undergone my seventh (of 19) radiation treatments for testicular cancer. Of course Berry is an elite athlete playing at the highest level. My athletic career has peaked at adult soccer leagues and corporate challenge events. However, we do have several things in common: being young, healthy, fit individuals, who didn’t see it coming, but yet tried to attack cancer with the same vigor, and having an overwhelming support system behind us.

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(Photo: CSM/Landov)

In June, I had my second round of checkups to see how the treatment and my body’s resolve were fighting off cancer. Turns out my blood levels were looking great and so far, there was no emergence of additional lymph nodes that looked like trouble. Still, I have four more years of checkups just to be sure. Later that month, on June 22, Berry also received good news at his checkup: he was cancer free.

Just 36 days later, incredibly, he was reporting to training camp for another NFL season. Only this time, he was starting the year as not the biggest, but perhaps the toughest player in the league.

There are many great takeaways from Berry’s last nine months. Sticking with the theme of this blog, here some great communication learnings stemming from the messaging he provided upon his return:

  • Address the Issue Up Front: Rather than let any questions linger, Berry and the Chiefs smartly held a press conference for media on Day 1. This helped everyone hear from him, ask the questions they needed, and to collectively begin moving forward with the season. Most importantly, it let his audience know that he is okay.
  • Include Your Support System: Berry included two of his main champions of support: his mom and his dad. Having them also describe what they went through helped to provide additional perspectives and insights into the positive network they helped create for him during treatment.
  • It Can Pay Off to Get Personal: Berry opened himself up on his personal feelings, thoughts, and struggles during treatment. In doing so, he humanized himself even more, connected with his audience, and perhaps whether he knew it or not, helped others cope who may also be facing similar challenges.
  • Let Your Story Provide Natural Speaking Points: As far as Berry knew, he was just telling his audience his experience over the past nine months. However, in telling that story, the audience heard so much more. They heard a message of shock, concern, struggle, and being scared. But they also heard a message of support, strength, resilience, and recovery. Yes, there are times when prepared “talking points” are certainly needed, but sometimes the most impactful points are ones that others interpret for themselves.

Finally, many who heard or have read Berry’s words on Tuesday took away some of the same things, but they also most likely each took away something different. Personally, four words stuck out to me that I feel not only summarize his journey, but that I can use as I continue on my own. They serve as a final takeaway no matter what struggles or obstacles any of us may face in life. When in doubt, just remember: “Fear Nothing, Attack Everything.”

Seattle’s Fine Line of Risk and Reward in Super Bowl 49

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas, USATODAY Sports

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas, USATODAY Sports

Twenty seconds left to go in the game. One yard to go for the game-winning touchdown. The possibility to clinch back-to-back championships with a running back nicknamed “Beast Mode” on the field. Given this scenario, it seems like a simple play call: with three downs to go, hand the ball to the running back until he gets into the end zone…or until he doesn’t, but at least give him the ball.

Instead, during Super Bowl XLIX, the Seattle Seahawks elected to attempt a risky inside slant pass to try to beat the New England Patriots. Their reward? An undrafted rookie for the Patriots broke on the ball, intercepted it in the end zone, and essentially sealed the victory for New England. If there was ever an instance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, this was it. In those few seconds, the emotions of two teams, two cities, two fan bases, and the millions watching on TV changed instantly.

What followed was shock and dismay at what seemed to be the most mind-boggling play call in Super Bowl history. However, if that play works, Seattle’s Coach Pete Carroll perhaps looks brilliant, calling a “gutsy” play (football term for risky) that no one expected. Now, we’re talking about one of the “dumbest” play calls in recent Super Bowl memory.

The same situation can occur in your business. You may have a great track record and look like a genius. However, if you take huge risk that doesn’t work out – one that looks like a super blunder – you suddenly appear to be woefully under qualified. In this situation, people may react in many different ways. Coach Carroll took the admirable route, and quite frankly, the best route to take: he put the blame on himself.

“That’s my fault, totally,” Carroll said after the game.

Marshawn Lynch, the Beast Mode waiting for the ball in the backfield also took the high road. When asked if he was surprised he didn’t get the ball, he responded: “No…because football is a team sport.”

Two of the biggest leaders on the team refrained from pointing fingers. These individuals and the rest of the team may get back to the big game next year. They may never reach it again. But even though the risk they took didn’t work out, costing them the game, it’s how they handled it that showed the true measure of their championship character.

After all, this is a franchise that took a risk on a twice-failed NFL head coach (Carroll) and drafted a 5’11” quarterback. Seattle’s reward? A combination that has helped them reach back-to-back Super Bowls and – even after that stinging loss – has made them favored once again to win it all next year.

Three main takeaways from Seattle’s situation:

  • Measure Your Risk vs. Reward: Businesses are based on taking risks; just be sure if your risk fails, there’s a backup plan so you don’t bottom out.
  • If it’s your fault, shoulder the blame: No one like being thrown under the bus and it’s pretty hard to accomplish your goals if you’re the only one left standing.
  • Fail fast so you can recover quickly: Getting in the same position again – and doing it differently – is the only way to get over it.