PRCG CEO On the Naomi Osaka Press Conference Saga



Media access is important; maybe the big press conference isn’t

by James F. Haggerty

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2021, issue of 

I have been battling against press conferences for more than 20 years.

Not necessarily because I wanted to restrict my clients’ access to media (although to be fair, sometimes that is the case), but rather because these gigantic, post-event media availabilities are inherently chaotic, usually repetitive, and sometimes downright moronic.

The Naomi Osaka saga reminds me of all this. And it also reminds me it’s not an either/or question.

Yes, Ms. Osaka and her team could have been more strategic and accommodating in approaching the situation, and French Open officials more diplomatic and nuanced in response. And yes, Ms. Osaka makes an awful lot of money from the public and media exposure that comes from her athletic accomplishments. As the saying goes: If you dance with a bear, the bear decides when to stop.

That’s all fine, but we’re talking about a 23-year-old here. And we must recognize that for certain sports, like tennis and gymnastics, the stars can be in their mid-to-late-teens when the media onslaught begins. They don’t have the decades of media experience of a Phil Mickelson or Tom Brady. Shouldn’t that matter?

If we are really going to take athletes’ mental health seriously, perhaps we need to reform the system of media access to athletes during tournaments and other events to recognize, and even mitigate, the toll it takes on the athletes themselves, right when they are trying to perform at their peak. While the public meltdown or slip-up may make for great soundbites and memes, that shouldn’t be the goal. But let’s face it … it usually is. And the modern, end-of-day press conference seems designed to create just that kind of a tweetable moment.

Here’s the point: While media access is important, confronting a gaggle of reporters all at one time — when athletes are fatigued, emotional and mentally vulnerable — isn’t. There are ways to ensure unfiltered access to athletes during sporting competition that don’t inflict such a toll on their mental health, their performance, or both. Rather than a simple “do it or you’ll be fined” approach, event organizers and team and league officials should weigh whether changes to the structure of media engagement would benefit both athlete and event alike.

Consider pool reporting, for example, where a small group of reporters covers the event and makes their content available for all media. We do it for presidents, why not athletes in these high-pressure contests? From working with high-profile clients for decades, I can tell you without question that limiting the number of reporters shouting questions at any given time can go a long way toward putting the interview subject at ease, creating a more controlled, less adversarial engagement. Which might even lead to a more human, revealing response.

A series of individual interviews works well for the same reason. We’ve often had situations where we’ll shuttle reporters in for a series for short conversations after an event. Again, without the glare and shouting of questions in a mass press conference format, you create a less anxious — and more real — experience.

Finally, it is incumbent on everyone in the process — from managers, to publicists, to tournament organizers and sponsors — to make athletes more comfortable during the interview process itself. If it’s part of the game, treat it like part of the game. This is what media training is all about. A main reason Phil and Tom and Venus are more comfortable with media interviews is that they’ve done it for hours and hours and hours over the course of their careers. Just like in their athletic achievements, they’re good because they’ve had years of practice — beginning, it should be noted, in an era before social media and streaming made every moment of every media availability fraught with peril.

Just as you simulate the real world of sporting events during practice, young athletes should be similarly trained in handling the glare of the public spotlight. I can guarantee you: Get a young star like Ms. Osaka more comfortable with the interview experience before the next event and you’ll go a long way to easing her anxiety and honing the particular skills needed for this element of her game.

In the end, here’s what I fear: In response to the very real issues raised by Ms. Osaka’s difficulties, we’ll all spew a few platitudes, engage in some virtue signaling on the topic of mental health … then go back to torturing the next young athlete at the next event. Instead, why don’t we try to find some practical solutions to ensure media access while protecting athletes — particularly young athletes — in a world where the glare of the public spotlight is often more intimidating than the sporting event itself.

James F. Haggerty is CEO of PRCG | Sports and the author of two books: “In the Court of Public Opinion,” now in its third edition, and “Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response,” both published by ABA Publishing (2019).

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