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Managing message helps sell results

I’ve always said that communicating is hard. It really doesn’t matter if it’s at home with your own kids, out and about with friends, or in your own work space with colleagues. It’s difficult because listening is part of the process as well. Communicating effectively takes time, effort and constant thought and cannot be taken for granted.

It is “one of” the most underrated qualities a GM of any professional sport, or leader in the business world for that matter, can have. It’s a skill that many hiring firms or organizations don’t drill down enough on, in my opinion, before they make a leadership hire. I think it’s an uphill struggle to lead and be effective/respected without being an effective communicator and in this day and age, having the people skills to go with it. I’ll take it a step further and say, IMO, it is a fatal flaw if you don’t have it.

Seldom do we see an effective leader who is a bad communicator. I’ve been around bosses that struggle with this and have been around others that excel at it. I’m sure most of us can relate to how frustrating it is for people when they never know the plan or the direction. I feel as though my best work as an NFL GM was when I had the entire staff (who I fully trusted) in the loop. I could then use everyone, and their skills, without hesitation as part of the process to get the desired end result. None of us are smarter than all of us.

As the lead decision maker of an NFL franchise, whether you’re the Head Coach or the General Manager, part of your job is to set the narrative coming out of your building that gets delivered to the masses and can shape public opinion. Part two of that is to then manage the message once it’s determined. There are times when you must work just as hard managing the message inside your own building in order to keep everyone on the same page as we previously mentioned, but its sure easier for employees to buy in to what you are saying if they feel involved and are actually being heard.

I think the same can be said in dealing with the media. In some media markets this takes a lot more of one’s time than others. It's helpful to pick your spots and the agenda of some media members individually has to be measured and dealt with, good or bad. I think it’s well worth the effort to take the time to try and manufacture a relationship with each media member. I have found that a lot of individual conversations have led to better understanding and therefore a fairer portrayal of the facts that reach the public. I have spent many days on the telephone for hours or conversing in person with this group only to question what I really got accomplished when I arrived home later that night.

I think there is an art to this management of messaging. One can communicate and share ideas and thoughts without revealing your end goal or things that inhibit you from doing the best job you can, to accomplish your end game.

This all came to mind for me while monitoring the visceral reaction by Chicago media and fans when the Bears did not get Seattle QB Russell Wilson, as rumors had crazily suggested they would and then subsequently signed free agent QB, Andy Dalton. I am not saying that Bears GM Ryan Pace is not a good communicator, but the message that he allowed to circulate in media waters around Chicago was totally non-realistic. People actually thought that this trade for Wilson could happen. Even the national media were churning these waters as well. One guy said- its 60-40 that it will happen. I always thought that it was a very long shot at best. Part of my thinking was because of the non-innovative proposal that the Bears were considering and that eventually got tossed the Seahawks way. Any realistic offer that did not include an answer for the Seahawks to hang their hat on at the QB position was a non-starter. The Bears simply had no answer for this question.

I feel that the reaction to this latest news was so negative because the message was managed poorly from the start. When you allow the media to report that something might just happen, and then it doesn’t (or they are wrong), the blame almost always will be placed on the club or its decision makers, not the media member who spread the unrealistic rumor to start with. I just feel as though the Bears could have managed this and the expectations better.

This happened to me once when I was the GM in Miami for the Dolphins. We had the 9th pick in the first round one year and were in need of a quarterback at the time. The outside world connected us with Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn and many predicted that he would be our first pick. I was not in favor of drafting Quinn from the start. I didn’t love Quinn’s skill set and it didnt match with what we were doing/building in Miami at the time. I really had no intention of ever picking him.

This was at the time of big rookie contracts and if they didn’t work, these deals would have a strangle hold on your franchise for years (ex. Jamarcus Russell). I didn’t want us to be in that situation with a QB that I didn’t love to start with. In the end, we picked Ohio St WR Ted Ginn (who had an excellent career and actually was a better NFL player) and all the media looked bad because no one predicted it. They rationalized that Ginn had to be a bad pick and it was my fault for making the decision to take him. Because I had no relationship with media members at that time and no line of communication had been established, I had let the train of thought about drafting Quinn run rampant during the pre-draft preparation.

It was a mistake not to really nip that in the bud early because when we didn’t pick him, it looked like the media didn’t have a clue. I blame myself for allowing that. The result was that I got crucified by the press. I should have worked harder to temper their expectations, maybe even given them a way to connect the dots, which would have had them hedging their bet to the public, whether it was print, radio or TV. I should have done a better job managing the message.

In this instance with the Bears, it hurt Pace’s own credibility and then his signing of Dalton had no chance to fly publicly. It was so poorly timed, coming on the heels on the failed effort to acquire Wilson. I just think a few well-placed conversations with the media might have helped temper the negative reaction to the outcome.

Like I said, COMMUNICATING is hard and managing the message is an extension of that.

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