Crybaby. Sore loser. Poor sport. Cam Newton is likely none of those things. But his post-Super Bowl press conference left lingering doubts in the eyes of fans and critics alike.
Newton’s curt, one-word responses to reporters’ questions and hasty retreat from the microphone have reversed the field of public opinion about the player and his character. Of course, losing is no fun for anyone, much less a confident, personable and engaging athlete who truly believed his time had come.
When a lively personality like Newton turns sullen, withdrawn and combative within a matter of hours, it can come as a bit of a shock. Did Cam Newton’s defining moment in the spotlight forever paint him as a bitter, unsportsmanlike diva who can’t handle the disappointment of losing?
Since we’re not great football minds, we won’t break down the reasons why Newton’s Carolina Panthers failed to win the championship. We are far more familiar with the Xs and Os of PR strategy, so we’ll offer our 3 key takeaways from the post-game press conference and address how Newton could have still won hearts and minds even after losing the Big Game.
1. Stick to the playbook.
In this case, there’s no artful way to say “we lost.” But Newton’s misstep was in turning too far away from the media persona he had created leading up to the game. Nobody expected Newton to smile and crack wise after losing the Super Bowl, but the timid, barely audible voice at the press conference wasn’t typical of the player. That created an opposite reaction from what was intended, calling even more attention to Newton and questioning whether he was demonstrating good leadership and sportsmanship on behalf of his team. Newton would have done better to be true to his public persona – even in defeat – than to change his behavior so drastically.
2. Use emotions for good, not ill.
Empathy is a potent ingredient in an effective media strategy, and negative emotions like sadness, fear and distrust can be powerful tools for changing public perception and opinion. Simultaneously, emotions like anger and frustration easily become amplified and misunderstood when communicated through mass media. Overwhelming emotion of any kind tends to be exaggerated when the public is watching. It’s obvious that Newton was disappointed after losing, but he missed an opportunity to create empathy with those in the audience who had also experienced the pain of defeat.
3. Eliminate distractions.
Much is being made of the press room setup as a possible reason for Newton’s frustrated behavior. However, just as athletes must suit up and play during inclement weather or face hostile fans and noise in visiting stadiums, facing the media “firing line” is no different. Media spokespeople must maintain focus and attention in all environments, ensuring that messages are communicated consistently and effectively, no matter the situation. Proper preparation in the form of key messages or media talking points – prepared for both winning and losing scenarios – could have helped Newton maintain his composure despite any distractions.
Although Newton is definitely not the only professional athlete who could benefit from “coaching up” when it comes to media availability, perception is a powerful tool in defining public image. Newton’s entire persona leading up to the Big Game was one of brash ebullience, painting him as a competitor who relished the spotlight and loved playing the game, whatever the outcome. The post-game press conference completely flipped that script, causing millions of fans to cast immediate doubts on Newton’s authenticity and reputation as a “good guy.”
The glare of the spotlight will always be harsh, and it will always burn a bit more painfully when you’re on the losing end of the confetti cannon. But by keeping emotions in check, maintaining focus on public perception and harnessing those hurt feelings for empathy rather than scorn, media spokespeople can win the war of public opinion despite losing a critical battle on the playing field.
David Hlavac leads the Business and Industry Group at Bellmont Partners in Minneapolis, serving a diverse roster of business-oriented clients seeking strategic communications counsel. David has nearly 20 years of experience working with manufacturing, professional service and technology companies and has contributed to dozens of award-winning public relations campaigns.
(Header Photo Credit: Charlotte Stories)