Sunday, December 6, 2015

Key Messages as a Tool in Sports

As a major sports fan, I often find myself relating things I learn to the sports I follow. In many cases it helps me understand theories or ideas and puts them into a different perspective that I can understand.

Public relations was no different. In fact, it was right in front of my face.

I had always been somewhat aware of the PR tactics used in sports, but when classes began I realized I had never understood to what degree, and at what levels people were involved at.

I'm an avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Avid is an extreme understatement; I'm obsessed. That's why the PR battle the Leafs have been facing was the easiest avenue for me to relate what I had learned in class.

The 2014/15 NHL season was a communications debacle in Toronto. Instances such as "SaluteGate", Joffrey Lupul's dirty laundry, and the Phil Kessel saga polluted the air around the team, and the results were just as bad.

This prompted a lot of change over the next 6 months. From what I've seen so far, the organization's image is just as important as the on-ice product.

The first thing I related from the beginning was the use of key messages to influence the masses. In this case, the masses is Leafs Nation.

Sports is chalk-full of buzz words, and the theme of this season seemed to be "Pain is coming, but so is change." At first, it comes across as an obvious statement from a general manager, or coach. A phrase given for the media to quote them on.

After learning about key messages in class, it was clear to me that this was more than a coach's opinion. All levels of the team, from President to back-up goalie, uttered the words "pain is coming." Everyone involved bought into the same idea and team members were not shy to let it be known.

The value of that phrase? Tempered expectations. If Leafs Nation buys into this concept, the team expectations are lowered. This was needed heavily after acquiring the most sought after coach this past off-season. With tempered expectations, the players experience less stress, allowing for a more relaxed environment for players and coaches to ease into a new system.

The next wave of key messages was regarding their young talent. From the beginning of the season, Leafs' management made it clear to the fans that they will be patient with all their rookies, allowing them time to develop with their minor league team.

In the past, Leafs Nation had used their size and strength to bully previous management teams into rushing young talent to the NHL. There are many instances to reference, my favourite being the #FreeJakeGardiner movement, which I will admit I was an advocate of.

This crop of sophisticated Leafs management understood this, and insisted from the very beginning that it will not happen again. Once again, the key message of "letting our young talent grow" was explained by every member of the team. Voicing the opinion of letting these young players play in the NHL is very unpopular with Leafs fans, trust me.

It's a good thing the Leafs foresaw what could transpire as the team is playing well but has a lack of offensive threats. Conveniently, the leafs two most highly touted prospects, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, are on an absolute tear of the AHL and NHL. This time around, Leafs Nation isn't rioting in 140 characters or less.

The last instance of key messages in use with the Leafs that I'll talk about in this brief overview is the notion that "seniority will not effect playing time." This has been a recurring theme over the years in Toronto as they are notorious for letting the size of contracts and player prestige dictate the amount of ice that players see.

New coach Mike Babcock was adamant from the start of training camp that this will not be tolerated. There is a ton of evidence to support this but none more glaring than the goaltending situation. Jonathan Bernier was acquired to be the goalie of the future, and was deemed the hottest goaltending prospect just 3 years ago.

His performance has slipped as of late, leaving him winless this season. Former starting goalie, who struggled mightily the year before, James Reimer, has taken hold of the starting job. This is especially bizarre for Leafs fans since Bernier had just signed short, yet lucrative contract. Once again, Leafs Nation is on board with the decision because the key message was burned into the minds of fans.

What I found most interesting during my research for this blog post is the proactive public relations that is in use. It's clear to me that this new management team understood the power of Leafs Nation and what they've been capable of in the past. Their efforts in assessing potential issues replicates the process that we're taught in class. I believe the communications plan in place for the Maple Leafs is a perfect example of how to be proactive in PR and jump ahead of potential issues.

For the first time in a long time, Leafs Nation on social media shows trust and belief in the management team. Part of that is due to the hiring of prestigious coaches and managers, but I believe the continued belief is due to an excellent PR plan. in addition, the on ice product has never been more promising.

Before enrolling in this program, I believed that public relations' only role in sports was to issue a statement when a player was caught partying, or ending an interview when a reporter asks a potentially damaging question. Relating what I've learned to my favourite sports team has opened my eyes to the sheer power of public relations, and key messages.

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