Mark Zinno: The Ravens Failed Media 101
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Often times in life there isn’t a 100% solution to a problem. In fact, the more complex the issue, the less likely there is a clear-cut answer that presents itself. In the latest rendezvous with the media John Harbaugh had to work his way through and around certain questions to give the Ravens side of the story in the face of several reporters and media outlets that contradicted what he was saying. It was uncomfortable at best, as media members tried to build the story as they saw it, while the Ravens crafted a different message.
I have often been called a “Harbaugh-apologist.” It’s a term that doesn’t bother me simply because I don’t have a problem standing behind a guy whom I believe has not only shown his high-level aptitude for his job, but an even higher level of character as a man. It’s easy for someone like me to respect John Harbaugh and hold him in a high regard. His experiences and track record are enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I will ask that readers of this give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that the Ravens have often botched their handling of the media. While that is an opinion, I have the frame of reference and experience to know where they went wrong. I spent over six years as a public affairs office for the United States Army. I deployed to Iraq as a public affairs officer responsible for telling the story of the United States Armed Forces, escorting and credentialing media throughout the country, sending out daily news and press releases and working closely with senior level commanders on crafting a message to both American and international media outlets. While I am not trying to be boastful, you could say my job overseas was larger in responsibility than the Ravens Public Relations department. Clearly, there are two distinct and separate missions in both jobs, but the desired outcome is the same – protect the brand, control the message and be fair and honest.
There are two popular ideologies as to how to handle the media. While these are not all-encompassing, I hope you see the general differences. 1) Keep information close to the vest and operate on a “need to know” basis in order to control the flow of information through using limited outlets to get things out to the public. 2) Develop an open relationship with the media try to use them as colleagues rather than adversaries. The Ravens choose the first theory. It is a very out-dated, archaic way to approach things and it often fails in today’s hi-tech, fast moving information society where everyone has a camera and access to a massive platform to speak to millions quickly. It fails for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the media out-numbers those trying to control the message. The Ravens PR department is four-to-six people. There are four seats in the media room in Owings Mills for the Baltimore Sun alone! You get the point. It was the same way in Iraq for me. I worked on a staff of five people that had to deal with hundreds of journalists from America and countless numbers more from other countries, including the Iraqi media. There was no way we could control all of them and we knew that. So, when the Ravens continue to keep things from the media, journalists and reports will start to dig. And dig. And dig. They have relationships with players, agents, mangers and other media members. The tentacles of the media reach much farther than anyone in the Ravens PR staff can imagine. You can’t stop that. So why try and hold information from them? That’s a business of diminishing returns.
Everyone in the media is trying to “break the story” and be first. Even if you have a good relationship with the media, they will still do their job first and worry about your job second. So the newer, 2014-philosophy on how to handle the media is to be out in front of them and give them the story the way you want it told, not through someone else’s eyes. The way to handle a media of leeches in Iraq looking to make headlines, was to reach out to them, give them access to even small things so that when a story broke, they felt comfortable asking questions to us first instead of just reporting a story. So when John Harbaugh and the Ravens went through their process of looking for a new offensive coordinator, it was automatically a race to see who could scoop it first. It was my feeling that the Ravens continually tried to cloak their process. In turn, the media continually tried to uncover it. There will always be a winner and a loser in that situation. A better solution would have been to use a member of the media, preferably locally, to help tell the story of the process.
In short, this is about relationships. Any given media member or members benefit from a solid working relationship with the team they cover. If the media department of that team uses one or two people to get their message out, only an idiot would give up the access to that privileged information to make a splash with a trashy, headline-based story. Access is everything in the media’s line of work. If you have it, you never let it go and you protect it because it is directly tied to your job security. The Ravens don’t do this. They choose to hide what they know more often than not. The limited times they are willing to give information out, they give it to the big name, national reporters and continually alienate those are in the facility and locker room on a daily basis. That is why there is a mess right now with Harbaugh and the hiring of Gary Kubiak. And I truly believe the one person who suffers from the way the Ravens handle the media is John Harbaugh, because he is the voice and face we see and hear the most.
I would never allow my boss in Iraq to look bad in front of the media. If he did, it was 100% my fault. My job was make him look good – every time! I sat in meetings with others on the staff and we built a story and a message. We got the “thumbs up” from the boss on that message and then helped put it out to the public. As a public affairs officer, I never put my boss in a position to have to lie or cover up anything. Being honest is still the most important thing about the media and the message. It’s usually never the crime, it’s always the cover-up! Damage control is inevitable sometimes, but lying is never the answer – and that goes for the media members too. I never wanted my boss to have to worry about the media and how he was going to look. My boss had bigger problems to worry about. I would never let my boss fail. The Ravens have let John Harbaugh fail with the media. Or Harbaugh has done it on his own. Either way, there is an adversarial relationship with the Ravens and the people who cover the team and that is a self-inflicted wound.
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