From a media standpoint, the week demonstrated why a poor job in handling media relations can do incredible harm to a brand.
The Bettman Spin
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman kicked the media week off with a news conference last Monday. He was trying to put the NHL’s best spin on the Kyle Beach story, but I’m not sure he did.
His news conference will be remembered for it taking 47 minutes before TSN’s Rick Westhead was allowed to ask Bettman a question. He only was given that chance because reporter Pierre LeBrun basically pointed out that Westhead hadn’t been given a chance to ask a question, although he was the main reporter who broke the story.
The question then has to be asked, why did the NHL try to freeze Westhead out? It has to be one of two possibilities – the vindictive nature of the NHL, or maybe the league was worried about what the questions Westhead might ask because he was the closest to the story.
The following day, the Professional Hockey Writers Association sent a letter complaining about the attempt by the NHL to freeze Westhead out and Westhead isn’t even a member. I was more than a little surprised by that, but commend the writer’s association for going to bat for a media colleague.
With so many newsmakers taking questions over the phone, or via video at news conferences, it’s become really easy to pick and choose who gets to ask questions and whether they get a follow up. It’s done to try to make life easy for whoever is at the podium. It’s been happening in politics, especially during COVID updates, since the start of the pandemic and obviously the NHL used the same game plan last week. Friendly reporters have been getting to ask more questions than those who might make life miserable for the one taking the questions.
There have been many comments about some of Bettman’s statements during the news conference. Keep in mind he’s never been in the business of being the moral compass of the NHL and doing the right thing. His job is to do what he can to make his bosses more money. His bosses are NHL owners. He’s doing what he’s paid to do.
Tara Slone Speaks Out
That evening, Tara Slone of Sportnet commented on the Kyle Beach story and Bettman’s news conference.
I loved what she had to say and thank her for saying what really needed to be said.
If that’s not enough, the following day Slone was on the Ryan Jespersen’s Real Talk show and she was asked about her comments and what Bettman had to say the day before. She was blunt when talking about Bettman and his list of things the NHL has done to become a more progressive league.
“He’s full of crap” Slone told Jespersen.
Whoa. Strong words. They weren’t just coming from a member of the media, but one who works for a TV network that is a “partner” of the NHL. Sportsnet paid billions a few years ago to become the main NHL rights holder in Canada. I wrote about the tight connection between leagues and the TV networks that have their broadcast rights in this blog a couple of weeks ago.
I loved what Slone had to say, but I cringed a little too. Ron MacLean found out what it was like to get on Bettman’s naughty list. I’m sure Slone is there now and she doubled down with a series of Tweets later in the week.
Jespersen asked Slone about that. She said her bosses had encouraged her to speak her mind, but she recognizes how it’s a risky proposition to be critical of the league.
Let’s just hope Slone is there for several more years saying what needs to be said, but I wonder if she will be.
A "Do Over" for the Players
Later last week, some of the main players involved in the story from the 2010 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawk team took another run at speaking to reporters.
Duncan Keith, now with the Edmonton Oilers, confirmed to reporters that he turned down a request to be interviewed as part of the investigation into Beach’s sexual assault. He said when he was asked to talk, he didn’t think he had anything to help in the investigation. Last week he said that was a mistake and he should have agreed to talk to investigators. He now realizes what he did isn't a good look.
Then Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews got in front of reporters again to try to set the record straight from a week ago when he talked about how good disgraced ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman and Assistant GM Al MacIssac had been to him. Let’s just say he said some very different things last week, basically what he should have said the first time around.
As a media trainer, I always get frustrated when athletes and others put their foot in their mouths and say the wrong thing, or don’t take responsibility for their actions. Before Keith or Toews went in front of reporters to talk about this story, they should have put in some serious time with somebody who could prepare them for the questions they would get.
I suspect they did talk with at least someone about what to say in advance, but I wonder how much time and effort they put into preparation? Were they really ready for all the questions they would get?
I suspect they didn’t realize how big the story would be and as a result, what they were doing last week is what they should have done right after the story broke – getting prepared properly. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.
The Media Dance was an interesting one last week and it’s far from over.
Image credit: Global News
Video credit: Sportsnet