Pitch your communications to achieve your goals

What can communicators learn from the world of sport?

Earlier this month, Lord Sebastian Coe – the figurehead of the 2012 Games – was commended by the CIPR for his ‘outstanding contribution to public relations’.

The organisation said the award of its President’s Medal recognised, among other things, his “skilful communication”.

At the start of the 2012 project, Lord Coe and his team were certainly quick to get their comms strategy in place. He says: “Communication has been central to all aspects of our preparations to stage an Olympic and Paralympic Games this country can be proud of.

“The vision we set out almost a decade ago to inspire young people across the world to choose sport is alive and well today, thanks to the millions of voices across thousands of channels in hundreds of countries.

“The power of communication to create a shared ownership and belief in a vision or a moment is immense.”

Getting the best from a sports team is often about bringing together talented people – of different backgrounds, levels of experience and abilities – and inspiring them to work hard for each other, and for a common vision. Sound familiar?

Whether you’re uniting a group of people behind a set of corporate goals or values, or a sporting vision, the principles remain the same: communicate early, clearly and often.

The best sporting managers and coaches have to be first-class communicators. Motivation, leadership, understanding – these all play a part of course. But they all begin with sharing information.

And it’s clear that face–to-face communication is just as important in sport as in the corporate world. As F1 leading light Ron Dennis says: “The starting point will always be looking into people’s eyes and telling them the way it is.”

And while the team itself takes priority, the best managers realise that their ‘organisation’ also includes thousands – maybe millions – of fans. The intense media coverage of the Premier League, for instance, now gives coaches an opportunity to communicate with these large groups, effectively face to face. Having the communication skills to do this well is becoming an increasingly important part of the job.

Kevin Keegan’s famous ‘I’d love it if we beat them…’ rant gave Newcastle fans a reason to wonder if everything was right at the top of their organisation. Newcastle eventually lost a healthy lead at the top of the table and finished second, after being top for most of the season.

Others have come under the media microscope too – such as former England boss Fabio Capello. A 2010 piece in the Guardian put it like this: “For a successful manager at any level, clear communication is key. For a man tasked with juggling the inevitable diva-like tantrums, last-minute injuries and highly publicised philandering of the England squad, communication skills are vital. Not to mention the small matter of telling his charges what he wants from them on the pitch. Perhaps his lack of fluent English is proving to be more of a problem than first thought.”

While a comms blog asked: “How is it possible to go from a leader in your field to an unemployable laughing stock in the space of one job? Four years ago, Fabio Capello was rightly seen as one of Europe’s top managers – the best in his niche on the whole continent. And now he’s a joke. Why? Because of communication. It doesn’t matter how good you are in your field – if you can’t communicate with your clients, you’re in big trouble.”

So what can we learn from these examples of how to – and how not to – communicate effectively? Here’s our take:

  1. Set out a clear vision that everyone can get behind
  2. Make sure all your comms channels are sharing a consistent message
  3. Think about the breadth of your organisation: how can you best communicate with your unique mix of people?
  4. Be clear about the action you want people to take
  5. Don’t forget about face-to-face communication
  6. Stay true to your organisation’s Values
  7. Keep morale high, but don’t overdo the comedy or you may lose respect
  8. Understand your people – everyone is different
  9. Leaders must lead to make the message credible
  10. Remember that everyone has individual, as well as group, goals: what’s in it for them?
  11. Remember: at the end of the day it’s just a game/job…

At the end of the day Brian…

Here are some classic post-match sound-bites from two of football’s most entertaining characters: Ian Holloway and Gordon Strachan.

HOLLOWAY

“I love Blackpool. We’re very similar. We both look better in the dark.”

“If you’re a burglar, it’s no good poncing about outside somebody’s house, looking good with your swag bag ready. Just get in there, burgle them and come out. I don’t advocate that obviously – it’s just an analogy.”

“I’m a football manager. I can’t see into the future. Last year I thought I was going to Cornwall on my holidays, but I ended up going to Lyme Regis.”

STRACHAN

Reporter: Gordon, what will you take from today?
Strachan: I’ve got more important things to think about. I’ve got a yoghurt to finish – the expiry date is today.

Reporter: Bang, there goes your unbeaten run. Can you take it?
Strachan: No, I’m just going to crumble like a wreck. I’ll go home, become an alcoholic and maybe jump off a bridge. Umm, I think I can take it, yeah.

Reporter: Gordon, can I have a quick word?
Strachan: Velocity.