What can PR pros learn from a football coach?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall when Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin spoke to a group of about 20 of the university's freshman students (not athletes) about how he has changed the culture of the program.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall when Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin spoke to a group of about 20 of the university's freshman students (not athletes) about how he has changed the culture of the program.

Franklin stood before the kids decked out in a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, a whistle dangling from his neck. It was not an image most PR professionals see very often; we tend to look for advice from men and women dressed in suits made by Brooks Brothers, not Nike.

But as Coach Franklin talked about things like messaging, research and planning, attention to detail, and leadership, I was struck by how much of what he had to say applied to our lives as PR people. And not in the clichéd, rah rah, inspirational-speaker way you might expect.

In this week's series of blog posts, I'll take a look at some of the PR lessons I picked up as I sat with a group of college freshmen in a football meeting room on a Monday night in Nashville, TN.  

Lesson No. 1 – The Importance of consistent, frequent messaging

When Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt, he inherited a program that had one of the least impressive track records in all of college football: just four bowl appearances in school history, losing records in 45 of the previous 50 seasons. In his two years at the helm, Franklin's teams have gone to two bowls, and last year's nine victories were the most for a Commodore team since 1915. Turning around the team's fortunes so dramatically involved a lot more than just Xs and Os. Franklin told the students that he needed to change the entire culture surrounding the program – a doubting, pessimistic culture at that. While some of the transformation involved tangible improvements such as replacing sagging ceiling panels in the locker room, the most important changes, he believed, involved words and ideas.

He knew that began with new messaging: in this case, relentless, positive, consistent messages delivered, not just by him, but by anyone and everyone who came into contact with his players (an especially refreshing strategy in light of the abusive approach taken by the men's basketball coach at Rutgers that drew headlines last week). He allowed no deviation – no rehashing frustrations of the past, no doubting the odds of success, no negative messages, period. He knew he had turned a corner when his players – whether in interviews with the media or in conversations with teammates or coaches – were repeating those same messages about winning, hard work, and togetherness. And the more that players, coaches, fans, and students heard these messages, the more they began to internalize them and to believe them.

The results speak for themselves, which is probably the strongest statement of all. If something as intangible as messaging can make such an impact on an endeavor like football – a sport that values physical skills such as strength, speed, and agility above all else – there can be no overstating the importance of sound messaging in the campaigns of the mind that we as PR people work on every day.

As a football coach reminded me, the power of words, carefully chosen and delivered by the right people to the right audiences, can accomplish just about anything. And that's a pretty compelling reason to be excited about working in this business.

Andrew Maraniss (@trublu24) is a partner at Nashville-based McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations.

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