NFL should start speaking from the heart

While I have been truly fascinated by the recent maelstrom surrounding the NFL, I have grown tired of the endless talking heads picking apart the league’s crisis management.

While I have been truly fascinated by the recent maelstrom surrounding the NFL, I have grown tired of the endless talking heads picking apart the league’s crisis management. 

But there was one critique that struck a chord with me. It was written by Bill Dwyre, a sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who took issue with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s performance at a press conference in September on the subject of domestic violence.

Dwyre didn’t so much criticize the substance of the NFL’s response, but rather the tone with which it was delivered: "Mostly, this came off like a briefing on cash flow or straight-line depreciation," Dwyre wrote. "When the need was to be real, be genuine, be really sorry rather than fake sorry, to speak from the heart, we got only boilerplate."

It made me think of the many speeches and statements I have had to write throughout the years and how I learned to focus on the sentiment first and the words second. 

Hitachi, a client, was sponsoring a kabuki performance in Central Park in 1986 and I had to write press conference remarks for Tsuneo Tanaka, the then-president of Hitachi America.

I was stumped. Hitachi was announcing the sponsorship of a kabuki performance of a drama written in 431 B.C. about the mythological character Medea. I knew nothing about theater, Greek mythology, or kabuki. So I found myself stressed and struggling to come up with something compelling or at least mildly interesting to write about.

Then, inspiration struck. I was trudging home from the subway, listening to music in an attempt to drown out the anxious voices in my head. As I walked and worried about my looming deadline, a Bob Dylan song
came on called "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." 

It was a ballad he wrote in 1963 about racism and social injustice, and was based on the true story of a 51-year-old black barmaid in Charles County, Maryland, who was murdered by a wealthy tobacco farmer. I was moved by the music and the story, and struck by the realization that great art, no matter the medium, has the power to touch people.

I went home and furiously pounded out a speech for Tanaka. I did not write about the benefits of a corporate sponsorship, but instead created a heartfelt tribute to the power of theater and drama. I was nervous that the piece was too touchy-feely, but Tanaka went for it. 

Even better, when The New York Times printed its review of the performance, they included this quote: "The message of Medea is easily understandable, even in Japanese," said Tsuneo Tanaka, president of Hitachi America, which has underwritten the $300,000 production. "The issues are so close to the heart, they are understandable in any language."

It was not only a win for my client, but it was also a career-changing moment for me, as it taught me to shed the shackles of corporate speak and focus on finding an authentic voice and message that connects with audiences. In time, this became a favorite part of my job. 

I looked forward to finding ways to tap true sentiment: a CEO’s personal letter of congratulations for an employee’s anniversary or a note to all staffers on a difficult issue. Most of all, I loved the challenge of crafting honest, heartfelt responses to complex crises that required authenticity, empathy, and clarity.

Maybe the NFL commissioner should start listening to Bob Dylan on his commute home.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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