PR lessons from Michael Sam’s coming out

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-grimy-old-football-closeup-white-image23514167Most people – even those, like me, who don’t follow football – have heard about NFL draft prospect Michael Sam announcing that he is gay. It caused a bit of a stir in the football world, but that seems to have died down quite a bit. Now, apparently some lobbyist is working to have gays banned from the NFL. (Really? Aren’t we so far past this kind of limited and outdated thinking?) I have to admit, I was surprised that this would really matter. But I also have to remember that I live in a region that is not just known for tolerance and acceptance, but also for equality and diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and a range of other areas important to human beings as a whole. So I had to put my personal opinions (we’re all human beings – equality is a right and we should celebrate diversity) aside and look at this as if it could be an issue.

Below are the PR lessons that can be learned from Michael Sam’s announcement.

Lesson #1 – Work with a professional who has expertise and experience in the areas of publicity, public relations and/or communication.

Mr. Sam hired a publicist (Howard Bragman), a communications professional with experience in helping high profile individuals to live (and speak) their truth, to represent him. Mr. Bragman has helped several well-known individuals to publicly “come out” and has expertise in this area.

Lesson #2 – Get out ahead of the story. If you don’t tell your story – someone else will.

Mr. Sam – with Mr. Bragman’s assistance – got out ahead of the story; they broke the story on their timeline. They didn’t have to react to the threat of a media outlet or someone else taking this news public before they were ready. They decided to announce it.

Lesson #3 – Timing is everything.

The timing of the announcement was a smart move – after the Super Bowl, before the NFL Scouting Combine, and months before the draft. The media response will have played itself out by the time the draft comes around. I mean, really – how long can they talk about something that has no impact on how good a player Mr. Sam will be?

Lesson #4 – Support the message by creating a human connection, and then get out of your own way.

One of the strategies that Mr. Bragman used was to show Mr. Sam as a human being. He made this a human-interest story and presented Mr. Sam as a well-rounded individual and created understanding and support for him. Mr. Sam made his announcement and then he stopped giving interviews. Brilliant. He stopped being a part of the story after he said what he needed to say. This story has now become about how the NFL is going to deal with sexual orientation diversity in its players.

Lesson #5 – Support clients to live their truth.

One of the key statements that Mr. Bragman made when explaining his strategy was: Release your statement, make your peace and get on with your life. Mr. Bragman has helped several high profile individuals come out and “live their truth” – and that is the most effective (and compelling) lesson we can learn as communicators. Nothing is as engaging as authenticity. The discussion – and maybe even some controversy – can swirl around Mr. Sam but, the fact is, he lives his truth and he had the courage to step into it. Not only do you have to admire him for that, but also respect him.

My sense is that there will be a smart NFL team out there that sees not only the football value of Mr. Sam, but also the PR value. There has been talk about his announcement as being “a distraction” for the team that drafts him. There isn’t a football team out there that hasn’t dealt with controversy before – and I would place odds that there are a dozen teams dealing with actions by players that are far more negative than someone coming out and saying he is gay. It’s 2014 people – step into the real world.

A smart PR move for the team that does draft him would be to step forward and identify themselves as a team that chooses their players based on their athletic ability and what they bring to the team overall. Their positioning should be that his sexual preference is none of their business, and that they stand for equality.

They will gain more fans than they lose by taking this approach. Putting your team out there as standing for equality is not just a good PR move, it’s the right thing to do. The Brooklyn Dodgers stood up and put Jackie Robinson in their lineup to end racial segregation in baseball. What will the drafting of Mr. Sam do for professional sports, as a whole? We have to stop identifying people by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other elements that chip away at the basic human right of equality that we are all entitled to.

We all need to stand up for equality – especially those of us who have lived a blessed life and not had to face the kind of ugly hatred that comes from ignorance, bigotry and bias directed at us.

Time magazine had a great article on Mr. Sam’s announcement and you can read Mr. Bragman’s post on lessons learned.

As an aside, I have to say that the strategy that Mr. Brag developed for this announcement is as close to flawless as I have ever seen. It may be that he authentically believes that his clients need to live their truth and he is committed to working with them to facilitate that opportunity. We all deserve to live our truth.

There is PR gold for whatever team drafts Mr. Sam. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the fact that we all deserve to live in a society that treats us as equals and to bring a talented football player onto their team.

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