The Political world could learn a few things from the Sports world

After more than 30 years as a communications advisor, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many intriguing figures in the sports world.

Lessons from that world can be applied, I believe, to elected officials (whether they be, in Canada, backbench MP’s or Ministers-in-waiting) and those who advise them.

To provide some context, when I work with professional athletes, coaches (or with corporate leaders, for example) I always ask the same question: “How important is your own personal credibility to you?” To a person, everyone essentially answers, “It’s everything….the most important thing.”

But many in the sports world, specifically, react poorly in the media spotlight.

They either:

  • become overly sensitive
  • play games with the media
  • don’t answer legitimate questions directly
  • pick fights with particular reporters
  • can’t handle legitimate performance criticism
  • have public and overly emotional meltdowns
  • claim they were misquoted or taken out of context
  • are numbingly bland

In short, they engage in tactics that have the absolute opposite effect of building credibility with those who hear their words and view their actions.

I well understand the dilemma—in sports and in politics. There is a historical mistrust between media and politicos, as there has been recently between those who cover sports teams and the players and coaches they interact with in a particular market.

This has been exacerbated, of course, as media has become even more pervasive.

Given that media folks tend to last longer than most politicians or sports figures in a particular market, it makes sense, then, to find ways to make the interaction less contemptible.

Some Specific Suggestions to Help Politicians Become Better Communicators: 

  1.  I’ve been in meeting rooms where politicians have been told, quite literally, “Minister, you don’t have to answer questions directly. Just keep repeating your message until the questions change…” or words to that effect. “Success” in those circumstances was (sadly) gauged by having survived tough questions through obfuscation. This approach kills credibility. (In sports, when a coach stays with this approach for too long, he is quite rightly ridiculed by the press—and fans.)
  2. “Talking points” can be important, of course. But how points are brought across is just as, if not more important. Just repeating the same lines over and over makes no sense. If you are asked a legitimate question, either in the House or out, why can’t it ever be addressed directly? Is it stubbornness, fear or simply bad advice, which precludes an elected official from responding appropriately?
  3. Have you really won with the public when you leave Question Period either having yelled at the Minister of the day, or as the Minister of the day, having yet again successfully managed to crawl through Question Period evading real answers to the questions you were asked? Does anyone outside of Ottawa really think that still equals effective, credible communication, or concern for finding solutions to the real problems people face?
  4. We all understand there is a huge risk, especially these days, in how politicians communicate. Athletes will still get paid if they mess up their media relationships. Politicians may lose their job. One slip, one off-hand remark and a political career may be lost. You’re followed everywhere, almost like a celebrity. Your comments and conversations are taped constantly. It can be both intoxicating and intimidating.
  5. So the question may be, can you really be genuine and be in “successful” in politics? I still believe it’s possible, yes. You can be yourself. Just be your best self—true to yourself, determined and passionate.
  6. I’ve for many years believed that people don’t have to agree with you for you to be an effective communicator. In fact, they may disagree vehemently with your point of view.
  7. But, and this is a big but—if you can communicate in a thoughtful and credible way, in a manner that at least doesn’t turn people away and actually engages them and makes them open to at least really listening to what you have to say, then that is a first step in effective communication.
  8. That means tone (how you say what you say) and attitude (arrogant, condescending or genuinely interested?) are hugely significant.
  9. The ability to deal straightforwardly is also crucial. If you dance around a question, people sense it immediately. People may not like an honest answer when they hear it, and honesty can do political damage, for sure.

But people absolutely loathe dishonesty when they detect it, so what’s worse?

Communication Questions and Thoughts for Political Advisors

On the other hand, what can you, as a staffer, do to help your boss achieve something closer to “balance” in the way they prepare to communicate with their various day-to-day audiences—other politicians, the media, the everyday people and working families in their own community who your MPs are there to represent?

Again, lessons from the world of sports—from kids on the playground to professionals—may help guide you in your efforts:

  1. Adopt a team-centric approach. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, but also out of self-interest. Former staffers tell me the life expectancy of many Hill advisors is pretty short anyway, so you might as well go down with a good reputation.
  2. Being a team player can mean many different things. It doesn’t mean being the loudest person in the room, or the first to speak or the last to speak.
  3. Put your views forward strongly, but be open to the different perspectives that will inevitably emerge in any intelligent, healthy debate.
  4. The poor “team player” has an attitude that can spread like a disease, and over time can kill the harmony and chemistry that is often critically important in any work setting. It’s hard to meet “team” goals when individuals within the group are primarily fighting for attention, glory or credit.
  5. How are your listening skills? Do you take input well from others or make instant determinations to ignore what certain people say? We all know, instinctively, that being a listener is the first step in being a good communicator, and thus the first step in being able to advise others thoughtfully and wisely.
  6. How much, if any, time do you spend self-reflecting. Failure to look in the mirror generally means you aren’t stepping back and seeing if you are really suggesting the best options.
  7. Are you a get-your-hands dirty “role-player” or a glory person?
  8. Respect given is usually respect returned. This includes respect not just for your boss, but for fellow workers. Genuine respect is the basis for lasting relationships, in good times and bad.
  9.  Negative body language can send awful signals—mostly about ourselves.
  10. The blame game is a favorite excuse in sports—is it in your office? “Not my fault”… is often our first instinct. In the non-teamwork environment, when things hit the fan, eventually everyone learns to cover their back, and you end up with a room full of people with their backs against a wall. It’s hard to be effective that way.
  11. When someone else is down, pick them up.
  12. Trust takes a long time to earn. But comfort is something you can start to create the moment you meet someone.
  13. Read, watch, compare, research, think, check your common sense meter, and then advise.

If anyone—politicians, advisor, whomever—ever discovers that responsibility is more important than “power” and could genuinely and legitimately communicate that, the country would be further ahead.

A final comment: you’re never so experienced in these things that you can’t learn more. Some years ago I read a comment from former Super-Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden, for many years a color analyst with ESPN before recently returning to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders as their Head coach. He has spent his “down” time away from coaching to be with family, but also to learn more about coaching methods. He mentioned that he has reached out to college coaches, and learned a lot from them, including coaches at Appalachian State.

Here’s someone who has won the biggest award in his profession, learning from those at a school most people probably know very little about.

Being humble enough to recognize that you don’t “know it all” may be a worthwhile lesson for politicians and staffers, too.