OPINION: What Bill Belichik & the Patriots can teach us about media relations

Author’s note: Upon reviewing a draft of this blog, a number of my co-workers demanded a disclaimer be added making it known that some at Metis are not New England Patriot fans. That said, the following is my opinion only and in no way represents the sentiments of all my associates - just the smarter ones.   

It’s football season. Living in the Boston area, I’m a Patriots fan. It’s the only team I follow; a far cry from my days as a sports fanatic. But being modestly informed and notably obnoxious was work. So, when Bill Walton decided to leave the Celtics to spend more time with the Grateful Dead, it was all the justification I needed to take a similar path.

But professional football? It’s low commitment. The NFL has the shortest regular season of all major sports, 16 games, a few extra for the Patriots and a rotating cast of forgettables (still working on the obnoxious thing). You even get a bye week to keep your house from being reclaimed by nature.

And make no mistake, I cut the grass once a year, whether it needs it or not.

So, as the season begins to heat up, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some thoughts about the Patriots, accompanied by a few obligatory industry tie-ins so it doesn’t appear I’m just trash talking. 

Gronk no play

The personalities in football are bigger than in other sports, literally and figuratively. Take Robert Gronkowski, a loveable man-boy-beast who wisely decided his health and a good party were more important pursuits. I hope Gronk sticks to his guns – plays Jack Burton in a remake of Big Trouble in Little China, builds a business empire as the CBD TE – and doesn’t return when the Patriots face injuries.

Personally, I always hoped when Gronk retired he’d get a paper route. I can think of no one I’d rather see bounding up my Aunt Nancy’s walkway with a hard copy of the local weekly in hand. She wields a tabloid like a nunchuck master, swatting flies and unruly kids with an imperceptible flick of the wrist.

Remember folks, digital hasn’t reached everyone, and you don’t want to be doing that with an iPad.

Bill, Brady, balls

Yes, Gronk will be missed, but the Patriot personality I enjoy most is Coach Bill “Belly Laughs” Belichik. My favorite are his post-game press conferences and those “high-level” insights. For example, “If you don’t let them score, you can’t lose,” a gem that followed a recent 43-0 trouncing of the Miami Dolphins.

The awkward silences. The pained expression after equally painful repeat questions. Belichick doesn’t like being in front of the mic and I don’t blame him. If someone came up to me after a long day of work, pointed out my mistakes, asked how I’d change things next week, I’d throw my drink at them - bag, bottle and all - even if it did get me kicked off the T. 

Yet, as this article notes, Belichick makes “press conferences so dull and boring that they become must-watch television.” True that. A co-worker says he’s just closed and only covers what he wants. Exactly. In some ways, I believe that makes him a dream spokesperson, one who can teach us a bit about media and public relations (PR).

For starters, Belichick doesn’t talk over his head (“I’m a football coach - not a doctor”). When it’s a sensitive subject, if reporters work him to elaborate on an answer, he’ll just repeat himself or shut it down completely. No doubt it’s frustrating for reporters, but at the same time, they know this is part of the show - intentional or not - and what he doesn’t say is often what makes the story.

Belichick discourages trash talk that provides competitors with bulletin board material. He admits errors but deftly moves on. He’s no social media risk, either. The coach is “not on SnapFace, not too worried what they put on InstaChat.” He has a sense of humor, supports his players, and his candor is endearing.

Further, Belichick sets a tone his players typically follow. They also stay on message or just take a pass on commenting entirely; a rarity in the big personality ranks of the NFL. Case in point, Bill’s “On to Cincinnati” quote that came after a blowout by the Kansas City Chiefs. What started as a seemingly dismissive line ended up becoming a rallying cry for the team, deflategating a giddy NFL audience of haters as they turned a 2-2 start into a Super Bowl finish amidst a lot of jealous nonsense.

I hope you’ve all learned a lesson. Never question the firmness of Tom Brady’s balls again. He’s the greatest of all time and you all were very, very rude.

Happy endings

Years ago, when doing PR for Veeam Software, I had the good fortune of working with Peter McKay, their former CEO, now leading developer-first security company, Snyk. I learned he was a Patriots fan, and while always amiable, diplomatic and controlled, the subject could get him animated. TechTarget Editor Paul Crocetti has a very similar temperament and passion for the team.

Before beginning a news briefing, I’d only have to mention the Patriots and these brilliant, composed gentlemen would debate the latest chatter for 15 minutes. They bonded, developed an appreciation for each other, and when there was significant company news or industry developments, they genuinely looked forward to hopping on the phone for a chat.

I bring this up as a reminder to PR people to look for potential connections. And, as advice to spokespeople to remember reporters are people, too. Don’t be afraid of fun, honest dialogue. In fact, when doing research for this piece, I noticed McKay’s reputation as a plain-spoken Patriots fan had leaked out.

In this interview, Dave Vellante and Stuart Miniman from theCube ask McKay about his team. I think his take on dealing Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers was right on the money. The Patriots organization is far from perfect. Perhaps the only thing McKay might change, in hindsight, would be the reference about  Robert Kraft and happy endings.

That one may get me in trouble with my boss. Then again, she has a good sense of humor. You kind of have to when you’re an Eagles fan, right?

Go Patriots – “Do your job!”