In some respects, the past week in the sports media world was just like any other. First, a star athlete says/Tweets something controversial (or just plain ignorant) and gets suspended for two weeks. Next, a network sportscaster and NFL Hall of Fame legend says something ignorant (some may say stupid) on-air and gets suspended by the network. And finally, a high profile NFL superstar in the midst of an outstanding season on the field uses his bye week to tell ESPN about his new book, his team, what’s going right, what’s different, and – oh yeah – his infamous Twittering (but ALL in a positive way).  

In case you missed the references I’m talking about, the first was Kansas City Chiefs’ Larry Johnson’s derogatory, inflammatory and less than Twitter-iffic “Tweet;” followed by ESPN/ABC Sports’ and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese’s “taco” comment lodged at Juan Pablo Montoya; and finally, Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Chad OchoCinco.

Was it like any other week in sports media? Yes. We’ve been here before and we see it all the time. Pick your example, there are many to chose from. Just insert player’s (or owner’s, celebrity’s, politician’s, high-profile figure’s, etc.) name and change the statement slightly. BOOM here comes the controversy!

You have to wonder that if we see it all the time, what can be done to make a difference and change it so it doesn’t keep happening? How do you avoid the trappings of “foot-in-mouth” syndrome when it comes to traditional and social media and the gaffes recently made by Johnson and Griese. And how and what has OchoCinco done that is keeping his image and brand positive?

For starters, you avoid these mistakes on a basic level by being responsible, smart and thinking before you Twitter, Facebook, text, email, call, blog, etc. This ESPECIALLY goes when you are a public figure. Yes, it all seems so basic, right? Well, it’s not as simple as you might think. That’s where media training comes in. Like many in the media relations industry, our firm spends a significant amount of time educating and training our clients on the proper and effective use of social media as well as traditional media. We also help them UNDERSTAND how it all works.

Media training isn’t just about the “X’s and O’s” of what to say and what not to say. Too many athletes and celebrities (and people for that matter) think that if they “just apologize” it will all be better. They think that if they “say the right thing” or “look the right way” all will be forgiven. That is simply not the case. There’s a lot more to it. As a public figure in the spotlight, you have to understand how to work with media, what that means, and the job it involves.

It’s no secret that social media is fair game. It will not – and should not – replace traditional media. But, when used properly, it can be quite an effective tool to enhance traditional media, as well as give athletes and other public figures the opportunity to control their messages in a positive way.

Facebook can be fun and help build an audience, create a place for a fan base to connect, etc. Twitter gives you a voice while cutting out the middleman, ultimately taking the power away from the paparazzi and putting it back in the hands of the celebrity. There are more social media tools, but if all of these tools are used properly, it can work to your advantage. But not understanding how to use them effectively can – and will – hurt your image and your pocket. You have to be smart about it.

On the social media front, Johnson’s use of Twitter wasn’t wrong. It was his Tweets that got him into trouble. Even though LJ's agent and the Chiefs have reached a settlement, his 140 character choice of words about his coach and use of a derogatory term ultimately: 1) earned him a two-week suspension; 2) cost him about $300,000 (originally, it was $600,000 and two week's pay, but it was reduced in the pre-arbitration settlement stage) and may cost more if the League fines him; and 3) did further damage to an already questionable reputation in need of rehabilitation.

With respect to traditional media, this time it was a sportscaster (Griese) and not an athlete who was suspended by the network for his words about Juan Pablo Montoya. Can their reputations be repaired and restored? Yes. It will take some time, but with the right strategy, Johnson and Griese will be able to move on and rebuild.

The highlight of the week? In my opinion, it was OchoCinco and how he has demonstrated throughout the past few months that he is clearly mastering the art of managing his brand via social and traditional media.

Now about “Number 85.” He’s a lot of fun. He works hard on the field, keeps us laughing, buys tickets for the fans (to make sure the city of Cincinnati isn’t blacked out for TV games) and he creates memorable media moments (e.g., this season’s HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals,” his U-Stream work, his Twittering, and his traditional media interviewing).

Like Shaquille O’Neal, OchoCinco is mastering the art of promoting his brand through the effective use of traditional and social media. He’s come a long way from last year’s off-season public disputes with his team, desire to be traded, performance on the field, etc. On ESPN this week, Chad talked up a storm: about his team, his play, his life, what’s different, how he’s improved and how he’s kept his focus while still having fun. He also spoke about his book and his life. He’s not perfect, but he’s moving in the right direction. Bottom line? He gets it. He’s not just using it. He understands how it works. Good work OchoCinco.

As for Johnson and Griese, all is not lost. We look forward to watching how your reputation rebuilding processes go. Call us if you need us. We can help.

About Wes Mallette
As the Co-Founder and CEO of the Los Angeles, California based Comment Communications (formerly known as Elevation Sports & Entertainment) one of my responsibilities is to lead my company's crisis response strategy for our clients when they find themselves in adverse situations with their reputation and image on the line. At Comment, we focus on strategic public relations, media training, image consulting, crisis communication and issues management, and helping athletes build their post-athletic careers in the broadcast booth. By leveraging our expertise and deep relationships with the media, we work with our clients to help tell their stories and position the athletes and companies they represent in a way that will allow them to maneuver successfully through today's complex traditional and social media environment.