In Hollywood, it is simply part of the culture that stars have Communication Strategists. They realize that their public image is vital to maintain and that having professionals in the Communication field is an important element of presenting the image they want the public to see. Professional athletes who reach the heights in their performance have become personalities comparable to the way our society treats Hollywood stars. Perception becomes reality for these larger than life sports icons.
The growth in recent years of sports heroes has outpaced the understanding by the athlete that they are now in the public sector, not only on the field or in the arena, but also as constantly observed public figures both on and off the field. Without an effective Communication Strategy, the athlete can be seriously harmed in image and also financially if the public sours on that athlete.
We can look at clear examples of this point with athletes who struggle with their image or simply allow it to be defined by the media and public without a proactive approach to communicating the image they choose.
Alex Rodriguez comes to mind. When still with the Seattle Mariners, it was well known that he wanted to be “liked” by the public. This is a noble goal, but it does not happen without thought and carefully presenting messages that conform to that goal. When he said it was not about money, but about winning, the public became skeptical. Why? ARod accepted a $252 million contract for 10 years from the Texas Rangers. This was not a team anyone believed was going to the playoffs, much less the World Series.
There was a huge negative response to this signing because the public perception was that Rodriguez went for the money and contradicted his prior statements. This image could have been softened if someone were there to advise Alex about how to develop a Communication Strategy to refute this negative image. It got so bad that when he came back to Seattle after joining the Rangers, fans threw Monopoly money on the field to remind him of his betrayal.
There were several things he could have done. First, he could have emphasized the fact that he really wanted a long-term contract and that the money was secondary. It is the case that Howard Lincoln, CEO of the Mariners was simply not interested in a long-term contract with any player. Reports were that he was willing to go 3 or 4 years, but not 10 years as Tom Hicks of the Texas Rangers offered.
Second, his messages could simply have made the point that the offer made was light years beyond any other sports contract offer at the time. He had not expected this, and frankly should have made the point that it was an offer that none of his critics would have rejected.
ARod and other athletes of his caliber do not understand that the Paparazzi consider them in the same way they see Hollywood stars. That was pointed out when the New York tabloid newspapers broke a story about the fact that he gambled at cards with people he should have avoided. And, having Paparazzi take photos of Rodriguez in Toronto, entering a hotel with a woman who was not his wife, only created another image that was diametrically opposed to the image he wants.
When his wife went to a Yankee game at Yankee Stadium wearing a T-Shirt with F—
You on it, the situation was further compounded. Fans would not be permitted into the Stadium with that language yet she was allowed to stay and created a controversy that got considerable media attention.
Sports Agents do a marvelous job for their athletes. Most, however, are not Communication professionals. This is an important profession of its own, and star athletes need to recognize that they need these professionals working with them in a number of areas:
MEDIA COMMUNICATION SKILLS
EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION RESPONSE TO PUBLIC CRITICISM
IMAGE ENHANCEMENT THROUGH OFF-FIELD ACTIVITIES
BROADCASTING CAREER SKILLS AFTER RETIREMENT
There will always be a difference of opinion about any public person. The point of Communication Strategy is to enhance the positive and mitigate the negative. With proper guidance, Alex Rodriguez could have avoided much of the public criticism he now receives in each of the major league cities he has played (Seattle, Dallas, New York).
Other athletes should take heed. Investing in Public Image can have long-term effects. After the sports career is over, there is a world of opportunity for those who have built equity with the public because of who the public sees them to be. This can have enormous financial and professional impact throughout one’s life. It is the old story: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.