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 his fans and critics.
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. Losing is no fun for anyone—much less a confident, personable and engaging athlete who truly believed his time had come.
When a lively athlete like Newton turns sullen, withdrawn and combative within a matter of hours, does he lose much more than the Super Bowl? Did Cam Newton’s defining moment in the spotlight forever paints him as a bitter, unsportsmanlike diva who can’t handle the disappointment of losing?
I won’t break down the reasons why Newton’s Carolina Panthers failed to win the championship—I’m far more familiar with the “Xs” and “Os” of PR strategy. So, here’s a look at how Newton could have still won hearts and minds even after losing on the field:
1. Stick to the playbook. In this case, there’s no artful way to say “we lost.” Newton’s misstep was turning too far away from the media persona he had created leading up to the game.
Nobody expected Newton to smile and crack jokes after losing the Super Bowl, but the timid, barely audible voice at the press conference wasn’t typical for the quarterback.
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 for his team.
Newton would have done better to be true to his public persona—even in defeat—than change his behavior so drastically.
2. Use emotions for good, not ill. Empathy is a potent ingredient in an effective media strategy. Audience identification with 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 outlets. Overwhelming emotion of any kind (think Howard Dean’s infamous “I Have A Scream” speech that cost him the Democratic nomination for president in 2004) can be exaggerated when audiences watch.
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 pressroom 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 reporters’ “firing line” is no different.
A spokesman must maintain focus and attention in all environments and situations, ensuring that messages are communicated consistently and effectively. Proper preparation in the form of key messages or talking points—prepared for both winning and losing scenarios—could have helped Newton maintain his composure.
Perception is a powerful tool in defining public image. Newton’s persona leading up to the big game was one of brash ebullience, painting him as a competitor who relished the spotlight and loved playing—no matter the outcome.
His 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.”
Newton isn’t the only professional athlete who could benefit from media coaching. The glare of the spotlight can be harsh, and it burns more painfully when you’re on the losing end of the confetti cannon.
Keeping emotions in check, maintaining focus on public perception, and harnessing hurt feelings for empathy rather than scorn can help you win the war of public opinion—despite losing a critical battle on the playing field.
David Hlavac leads the business and industry practice group at Bellmont Partners, a Minneapolis-based, full-service communications agency.