April 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 27, 2014 – 11:34 am

Don’t bring black people to my basketball games.

That’s the message 80-year-old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly delivered to his 20-something girlfriend on a tape that was leaked on the gossip website TMZ yesterday. Among other statements, the man on the tape, purportedly Sterling, says:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” 

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“Don’t put [NBA legend Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don’t bring him to my games.”

Clippers Owner Donald Sterling to GF – Don’t Bring Black People to My Games, Including Magic Johnson – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe


I use the term “allegedly” because the tape hasn’t been formally authenticated as of this writing. But Sterling’s weak response, released to TMZ by the Clippers organization, suggests he’s guilty as charged:

“We have heard the tape on TMZ Sports.  We do not know if it is legitimate or if it has been altered.”

The statement goes on … “We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ Sports — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family, alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would ‘get even.’”

And the statement goes on, “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”

And there’s this: “He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”

That’s not even close to a denial.

If he hadn’t uttered racist sentiments, it would have been easy to state that the tape was illegitimate. The only way the legitimacy of the tape could even be called into question is if it was possible that Sterling had uttered such statements. Sterling’s non-denial reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s ridiculous non-denial, in which he said he couldn’t say “with certitude” that a lewd tweet was of him in his underwear.

The organization’s attempt to question the motives of the leaker is even more pathetic given that it wasn’t accompanied by a strong denial. This is a mushy statement, bordering on a smear, that is unlikely to give an iota of comfort to even Sterling’s most ardent supporters.

Donald Sterling

In our media training courses, executives often ask how they can avoid being the victims of furtively taped conversations. My answer? You can’t. Your job is to avoid saying incendiary things that can be used against you, even in conversations you regard as private. In this case, Sterling may have been set up by his much younger girlfriend—but Sterling is solely to blame for the consequences, as no one forced him to share such racist views.

That leads to the cost of this mistake. Many people in the NBA are already calling for Sterling to lose his team. Given the NBA’s constitution, that may not be easy (a long suspension that essentially removes day-to-day control from Sterling may be more likely). But there are many other ways for Sterling to pay for this mistake—through fan boycotts, players who refuse to play for the Clippers, and diminished brand equity and reputation.

Assuming this tape will be authenticated, Sterling will have turned himself into a pariah who will go down in the annals of sports history alongside other infamous bigots including Marge Schott, Jimmy The Greek, and Al Campanis.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Media Interview That Cost A Man $3.5 Million

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 2, 2014 – 6:02 am

Australian rugby player Andrew Fifita recently made a comment that cost him a four-year, $3.5 million contract ($3.2 million U.S.).

The 24-year-old announced that he would be changing teams, from the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. But before he even put on his new uniform, he expressed disloyalty to his new team. Here’s the story via news.com.au:

“On Friday he let slip in an interview that he wished he’d chosen rugby union [a different league] instead. Then yesterday, the Dogs effectively said fine, forget the whole deal.

Oh, the Bulldogs cited a bunch of legalese. But reading between the lines, they appeared to be saying “You’ve got no loyalty? Then we don’t want you.”

What caught my eye were comments made by his teammate, Paul Gallen, who offered this solution: 

“I think he’s really going to have to be micromanaged, I really think they have to get him some kind of media training or something.”

The columnist agreed:

“Gallen is right. If Fifita doesn’t have any natural humility, he desperately needs a slick professional to drum it into him.”

Both Gallen and the unnamed columnist have a distorted view of media training.

A media trainer’s job is not to “drum” humility into someone. Good practitioners are not slick professionals who attempt to create personality traits where they do not exist (we can help people emphasize traits they do possess). Doing so would be doomed to failure, as the public can usually tell when someone is faking it.

We can only be successful when working with somewhat self-aware people who have a desire to change. If Fifita is not naturally humble, I would never try an approach intended to make him fake humility.

What would I do? I’d focus on helping him reduce the likelihood of a future “seven-second stray.” I would try to accomplish that by invoking his competitive spirit and analogizing his public comments to rugby. Every time he prevents himself from making a potentially controversial comment, he should award himself a point. Every time he makes one, he should view it as voluntarily allowing the other team to score.

That’s it. No drumming false humility into him. But by getting him to be as competitive with the use of his words as he is during play, it might serve the same purpose—he’d learn to bite his tongue more often, which might result in him genuinely appearing more humble. And it wouldn’t take a “slick” professional to help him do it.

That’s my take. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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Humor Is An Asset In Life. But Not In Media Interviews.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 14, 2013 – 6:02 am

Many sports coaches hate it when their players “talk smack” about a team they’re about to play.

Those incendiary comments often serve as motivation for their opponents, who relish the chance to defeat the team that insulted them. Some opposing coaches even post the quote in the locker room to help rally their players.

So it caught my eye yesterday when one of my tweeps, @adam_myrick, tweeted this out:

Adam Myrick Tweet

The Associated Press story he links to is about Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spencer, who got into trouble with his coach this week for trash talking his opponents. As the AP reports:

“Coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that Spencer wouldn’t speak with the media for ‘a long, long time’ after saying a day earlier that Ohio State would ‘wipe the field’ with Alabama and whoever is No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.

‘I guess I’m a little biased, but I think we’d, uh, we’d wipe the field with both of them,’ Spencer said, chuckling.”

To the AP’s credit, they reported the full context of Spencer’s comments:

“It was a statement that Spencer…concluded with a laugh. It was clear he was half-joking. But sarcasm, humor and nuance seldom can be sensed between the lines of cold, hard print or on a monitor or screen.”

Coach Urban Meyer, who wasn’t amused by his player’s ad lib


Many news organizations wouldn’t have done Spencer the favor of writing that he had been half-joking. They would have just included his comments verbatim without mentioning the humorous context in which he made them.

And that’s the problem with humor. Without the context, comments intended as humorous, silly, or ironic can be portrayed literally—and often are.

You might wonder whether you can afford to make more humorous comments during a live radio or television interview, since the audience will see your full exchange and be able to discern your meaning in its proper context. That’s safer, yes, but it’s still not entirely safe. That’s because your comments may later be transcribed by the wires, blogs, and newspapers—and the “proper” context may not be reflected in their stories about your interview.

With all of that, you may reasonably conclude that I’m advising you never to be humorous during a media interview. But that’s not quite it. It’s not that you can’t be humorous at all, but rather that your humor must reflect your actual, literal meaning.

If your humor, when transcribed, says exactly what you mean and can’t be interpreted in a harmful manner, you’re probably on safe ground.

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Should The Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 22, 2013 – 6:00 am

Imagine a professional sports team called the “Newark Negroes.” If the year was 1913, that name might make historical sense. But if they were still playing in 2013? It’s actually unfathomable—it couldn’t happen, and it wouldn’t be tolerated by American society.

And yet, each week, fans gather at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland to cheer on their hometown Washington Redskins—a name that many consider just as offensive.

If you’re not familiar with the historical baggage carried by the term “Redskins,” here’s how Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News summarized it:

“In 1755, when the United States was just 13 colonies, Spencer Phips, lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called for British settlers to kill Native Americans who resisted.

Instead of bringing the bodies of the Penobscot Indian Nation — who lived in what is now Maine — as proof of the slaying, settlers could return instead with scalps of the men, women and children they attacked, and those “red skins” earned them as much as 50 pounds.”

Washington Redskins by Keith Allison

A poll of Washington, D.C.-area residents conducted by The Washington Post in July (margin of error 4.5 percent) found that only 28 percent of respondents thought the team should change its name. But interestingly, 56 percent of people acknowledged that the term was offensive to Native Americans, and 88 percent of people said a name change would have no impact—or a positive impact—on their support for the team.

That suggests that most people know it’s an offensive name but are reluctant to change it due to their own, positive associations with the team. I can understand that. I grew up in Maryland and rooted for my hometown ‘Skins for many years. Changing the name would feel, in part, like it would partially erase my fond memories of Sundays in the stands at the old RFK Stadium.

Nonetheless, it’s still the right thing to do.

This issue is quickly becoming a big crisis for the team. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King said:

“I’ve decided to stop using the Washington team nickname. It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore. The simple reason is that for the last two or three years, I’ve been uneasy when I sat down to write about the team and had to use the nickname…Some people, and some Native American organizations…think the nickname is a slur…I can do my job without using it, and I will.”

Mr. King isn’t alone. According to the BBC, at least five news organizations refuse to use the word “Redskins” in their reporting: The Washington City Paper, the Kansas City Star, Slate, New Republic, and Mother Jones. And certain reporters at USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News, Buffalo News, and The Washington Post also refuse to use it.

For his part, Redskins Washington NFL franchise owner Daniel Snyder says he will never change the team’s name. Never.

In fairness to Snyder, changing the team’s name could cost the team many millions of dollars. The “Redskins” brand name took decades to build, and changing it could compromise some of its brand equity. But the question is at what point that business loss becomes the less expensive of the two options. If reporters increasingly refuse to use the team’s name, the name “Redskins” would surely lose some of its brand equity anyway. And if the name becomes more stigmatized, you might find fewer fans buying Redskins memorabilia for themselves and their kids.

There’s a good precedent here, and it also comes from Washington, D.C. sports. In 1995, the owner of the Washington Bullets basketball team, Abe Pollin, decided to change the team’s violent-sounding name—a name change he thought appropriate since Washington, D.C. had such a high crime rate.

Pollin ran a contest and allowed fans to decide the new name; fans renamed the team the “Washington Wizards.” If public sentiment continues moving swiftly against Dan Snyder’s Redskins, he might consider using a similarly fan-based approach to rename his team.

Should The Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

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Please leave any additional thoughts in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons

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Advanced Media Training Technique: Be Boring

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 13, 2013 – 6:02 am

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is no stranger to challenging media situations.

In recent years, he’s had to address his team’s notorious participation in the 2007 “Spygate” scandal, welcome the potentially distracting Tim Tebow to his roster, and, most recently, deal with player Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with first-degree murder earlier this summer.

Central to his media success is an underlying media strategy that goes beyond mere message discipline. As Patrick Coffee of PR Newser put it, “the man’s secret: keep things nice and dull.”

Belichick’s “be boring” approach is evident in his press conference about the Aaron Hernandez murder charges. (Questions begin at the 7:15 mark.)

Since you’re probably not a football coach, here’s a question of greater relevance for you: Should you ever “be boring” on purpose? Is “nice and dull” a winning media relations strategy?

If you’ve read The Media Training Bible, you know that I generally propose being an engaging media spokesperson who delivers sound bites reporters love and the public remembers. Doing so not only helps to build your brand, but keeps you high on a reporter’s list of sources to call; if you can deliver a great interview, reporters know they’ll get what they need from you and keep calling.

But as Belichick’s press conference points out, there are times you want your presence in a story to be minimized. (Here are four ways to minimize or kill a news story.)

For the purposes of this article, I’m referring to message discipline and “being boring” as two different things. (After all, you can still deliver a memorable media sound bite while being on message.)

Below are three examples of when “being boring” might work.

Boring Seminar

1. You agree to an interview about a topic you’d prefer not receive a lot of attention.

If you deliver a great media sound bite, that very well may become the headline—which would only serve to magnify the story and make it more memorable. Using purposefully uninteresting language would serve up little to make the story bigger.

2. You’re a politician who is a part of a negative story along with three other politicians of equal rank.

You know that the other three politicians are also speaking to the reporter. If you’re purposefully boring, odds are the reporter will give more ink to one of your other three political peers, one of whom will presumably say something more interesting. The same principle applies if you’re talking about business competitors or a controversy involving three other not-for-profit groups.

3. You work in an unpopular industry.

Some of our clients work in controversial industries. They prefer to do their work under the radar—not because they’re engaged in a nefarious effort, but because the media and/or the public too often misunderstand or mischaracterize the nature of their work. Still, there are times they must speak on the record, and being boring is a great way to help keep the story less dramatic.

In closing, though, I’d advise most clients in most situations not to engage in the “be boring” strategy. For most of us, our goal is to build our brands and reinforce our reputations. And developing positive long-term relationships with reporters and delivering media-friendly responses is usually the best way to accomplish that. 

A grateful hat tip to @PatrickCoffee of PRNewser.

Can you think of other situations when the “be boring” strategy might be helpful? Have you ever used it? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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Riley Cooper: A Racist Remark, A Terrific Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 2, 2013 – 6:02 am

Riley Cooper, a wide receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles, earned the critical glare of the media spotlight this week after a secretly recorded video emerged of him using racist language (Riley is white).

Cooper was attending a concert by country star Kenny Chesney and wanted to go backstage. The African American security guard wouldn’t let him pass through a checkpoint. And that’s when this happened:

“I will jump that fence and fight every ni*ger here, bro.”

Riley has rightly been blasted for his use of racist language (not to mention the threat of violence). And although I offer no excuses for his inappropriate and incendiary language, his reaction to this incident has been rock solid. 

First, Cooper sent these tweets:

Riley Cooper Tweets

On Wednesday, he faced cameras and delivered this press conference:

Elements of a Good Apology

A good apology is one that is sincere, not contrived; is motivated by the right reasons, not by hope for personal gain; that demonstrates a genuine sense of remorse, not dismissiveness. A good apology conveys an unmistakable impression that the person understands their infraction and is genuinely committed to change.

Cooper succeeded on all of those counts.

He looked dismayed, ashamed, and pained during the press conference. He refused several opportunities to make excuses for his behavior, such as when he refused to go into details about what caused the confrontation or make his alcoholic consumption that night a reason for his behavior. After the press conference ended, he apologized to his teammates directly.

Some readers might conclude that he only apologized because he got caught and that his less guarded moment revealed more about his true character. But as someone who reviews a lot of apologies in these types of situations, this one struck me as sincere. I suspect this incident won’t have a devastating long-term effect on Cooper’s career.

Still, there’s a lesson here for all of us. As I’ve written so many times before on this blog, today’s media culture requires public figures (and the rest of us) to comport ourselves in public as if there’s always a camera filming us. In many cases, there is.

A grateful h/t to reader @DavidPetroff; Twitter screenshot from Deadspin.com.

Update: August 2, 2013, 3:45 p.m.

According to ESPN, Cooper’s teammates have not rallied around him, and this incident might cost him his job in Philadelphia. There’s also rampant speculation that some players around the league will make Cooper a “target” on the field by punishing him with particularly hard hits. 

All of that may seem to contradict my point about the long-term impact this will have on his career, but that’s yet to be seen. Keep in mind that the NFL has welcomed back players involved in homicides, acts of violence, and dog fighting rings. 

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10 Questions Rutgers Officials Need To Answer Right Now

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 3, 2013 – 9:50 am

By now, you may have already seen the hidden video of Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice physically assaulting his players. The video quickly went viral after airing on ESPN yesterday.

After watching this video, there’s no doubt in my mind that Rice should be fired. Immediately. (Editor’s note: Rice was fired shortly after this story posted.) He probably should have been fired when Rutgers officials first learned of the video last November. But Rice may be somewhat irrelevant at this point, assuming he will be fired in the next few days.

What’s much more relevant is the failure of the officials at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who knew they had a problem on their hands and failed to take appropriate action. (They suspended Rice for three games, fined him $50,000, and ordered him to take anger management classes. That’s more than nothing, but not commensurate with the seriousness of his infractions.)

Below, you’ll find ten questions I’d pose to the president and athletic director of Rutgers right now. If I was their media trainer, I’d insist that they develop credible answers to all 10 of these questions before doing any interviews.

  1. 1. What did you know, and when did you know it?
  2. 2. In December, you decided to suspend Mr. Rice for three games. Why didn’t you feel that his firing was warranted at that time?
  3. 3. If calling players “fucking faggots,” physically assaulting them, and throwing basketballs at their heads isn’t a fireable offense, what is?
  4. 4. A player could have been seriously injured or killed as a result of having a basketball thrown at his head. Again, why didn’t you view that as a fireable offense?
  5. 5. You’re now reconsidering your decision to retain Mr. Rice. If you feel you took the appropriate action by suspending him, why are you suddenly changing your mind? It looks like you’re just bowing to pressure because ESPN released a story you had hoped remained hidden.
  6. 6. After Penn State’s scandal, it became clear that athletic departments could no longer treat out-of-control coaches too leniently. Weren’t you nervous that your decision to keep Rice employed could bring all of you down?
  7. 7. How would you have treated, say, a humanities professor or a provost who hurled a basketball at a student’s head at high speed? 
  8. 8. What would you say to the parents of these athletes who trusted Rutgers coaches to treat their children with respect?
  9. 9. Your University Code of Student Conduct says: “All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to behave in an ethical and moral fashion, respecting the human dignity of all members of the community and resisting behavior that may cause danger or harm to others through violence, theft, or bigotry.” How would you respond to those who say you appear to have two sets of rules: one for high-profile university leaders, and the other for students and more lowly staff?
  10. 10. Why should students, faculty, and the community trust you to retain your positions?

What questions would you ask? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

UPDATE: April 3, 2013, 10:10 a.m.: Rutgers University just announced that it terminated Rice’s contract. The questions posed above remain just as relevant now as they were before his firing, since it took the University months — and public pressure — to take that action.

UPDATE 2: April 3, 2013: 11:23 a.m.: Rutgers’ Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, issued a reasonable statement this morning, in which he took responsibility for the delayed firing. His statement, and my response, can be found on PR Daily here.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Dear NASCAR: Information Wants To Be Free

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 1, 2013 – 12:56 pm

Last Saturday, NASCAR driver Jeremy Clements made a racist remark during an interview with MTV (his comment was not recorded). NASCAR handled the incident swiftly, suspending him indefinitely and reportedly insisting that he attend sensitivity training as a condition of his eventual return.  

Clements and NASCAR may have been able to get away without the public ever learning about this story. The only two people who heard the comment were an MTV reporter (who said he had no intent to make the comment public) and a NASCAR publicist.

Despite that—and to its great credit—NASCAR acted anyway, releasing a statement saying that Clements’s comment was “intolerable.” But it’s what NASCAR didn’t put in its statement that caught my eye.

NASCAR released the following statement on Wednesday:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jeremy Clements, a driver in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has been indefinitely suspended from NASCAR for violating the sanctioning body’s Code of Conduct.

On Feb. 23 at Daytona International Speedway, Clements was found to have violated Sections 7-5 (NASCAR’s Code of Conduct) and 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing).

“During the course of an interview, Jeremy Clements made an intolerable and insensitive remark,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. “NASCAR has a Code of Conduct that’s explicitly spelled out in the 2013 NASCAR Rule Book. We fully expect our entire industry to adhere to that Code.”

Clements simultaneously released his own statement:

“I apologize and regret what I said to the NASCAR writer and to NASCAR, my sponsors, my fans, and my team. NASCAR has a Code of Conduct that everyone must follow and I unintentionally violated that code. I will not get into specifics of what I said but my comment to the writer was in no way meant to be disrespectful or insensitive to anyone or to be detrimental to NASCAR or the NASCAR Nationwide Series. I will do what I need to do in order to atone for my error in judgment.”

Both of those statements left a gaping hole: What did he say?!?

Journalists, who weren’t satisfied by the vague statements, started digging. And sure enough, they started finding answers within 48 hours. This morning, Marty Beckerman, the producer who was present during those comments, said on MTV:

“I was there to do a fish-out-of-water story about going to NASCAR and having a wild, crazy weekend. And, we were doing interviews with many of the drivers, and I was on the way to another interview — we were looking for [driver] Johanna Long’s trailer — and the NASCAR publicist called Mr. Clements over and asked him for help finding her. He walked us toward where she was, and on the way over, I explained to him that Guy Code is rules for guys, how you treat your friends, how you treat your ladies, things like that. I was there to do a humor piece, so I asked him what would be Guy Code for race car drivers, and he blurted out [a phrase that used the n-word].”

So here’s the question: Would NASCAR and Clements have been better off by releasing those details themselves? Wouldn’t doing so have given them more control over how the comments were reported?

And it’s not just this incident. After a horrific crash last week, NASCAR immediately claimed copyright over all fan photos and videos of the wreck. That stance led to the predictable “Streisand Effect,” which occurs when a person’s effort to remove content has the opposite effect as defiant bloggers fight back by making the content more widely available.

In both cases, it appears that NASCAR is still operating in a world in which they think they can control all information. But that’s an increasingly difficult task in the age of social media.

When a person—or an organization—is viewed as hiding information, the resulting coverage is typically harsher. Their obfuscation only served to prolong the news cycle.

What do you think? Should NASCAR have released more details in order to help control the story?

Jeremy Clements photo credit: Royalbroil, Wikimedia Commons

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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