Julia Schatz, Senior Account Executive

A few weeks ago, Michael Sam, Mizzou’s defensive end and the 2013 SEC co-defensive Player of the Year, came out, positioning him to potentially become the first openly gay player in the NFL.  Although this is no longer breaking news, the story will continue to make headlines as Sam represents a series of upcoming firsts for the league, beginning with the NFL draft on May 8.

What makes Sam’s decision to come out even more interesting is that it does not affect just one team – it affects every one of the 32 teams that could potentially draft him in May.  But it goes beyond teams. It includes every player, every front office, every sports reporter and outlet, just to name a few.

Sam’s decision to come out before the NFL draft was not only brave, it was strategic. Sam’s publicist, Howard Bragman, reflected on the decision to do so, “He took a great deal of criticism about coming out in advance of the draft. Let’s be clear – had he come out after, he would have faced criticism for not telling the truth. He not only owned his truth, he put it in perspective and got great respect for his integrity all the way.”

While Sam’s unique situation is unprecedented, after reading a behind the scenes account of Bragman’s strategy to take Sam out of the closet publicly, I found his plan strangely familiar. As the article takes you through Bragman’s process, some key strategic decisions are highlighted that will resonate strongly with anyone who has worked in crisis communications.

When planning any announcement the biggest PR decisions are: Who? When?  Where? How? Bragman and his team had the following answers:

Who? “For Sam and his team, the most important element to the entire process has been protecting Sam’s ability to tell his story himself first. It was that core tenet that dictated the decisions of where, when and how to break the story: Sam, not a reporter looking for some page views, had to tell the story on his terms.”

When? “The key was to give NFL teams as much time as possible to absorb this: The further ahead of the draft, the less it would matter in the draft. Plus it would be important for him to get on the field after he came out.”

Where? Bragman coordinated the announcement to break in three different outlets: ESPN, Outsports.com and the New York Times. “He didn’t want one company controlling the TV and print. This was going to be a team effort; no one place would ‘own’ the story.”

How? The strategy was, “Announce it once, announce it well and let Michael focus on his football.”  For Sam it was important that he was defined as an athlete, not an activist.

Despite how the situation plays out in the long run, this strategy includes important PR reminders that apply to any type of story. Here are the lessons from Bragman’s strategy to help you “own your truth.”

  • Timing is everything. You can plan all you want but because of social media your communication plan needs to be flexible. It is important that you get your story out first rather than react to someone else telling your story. If you break it yourself, you have the advantage of controlling your story and the details.
  • Be prepared and anticipate negative responses and tough questions. Answer them in a truthful yet consistent and controlled way
  • Choose who will break your story strategically. Like Bragman did, it is important to offer your story to contacts you know and trust as well as those with a proven track record of covering similar issues fairly.
  • You do not have to tell your story to every reporter or outlet who asks. In fact, it is often to your advantage to be selective because you have greater control of the content that is being released. Remember, media training is important even if you are only doing one interview!
  • Lastly, it is important to not let the incident or announcement define you.  Your client should be portrayed in terms outside this particular news story, as a well-rounded human being. Especially when a crisis is involved it is important to allow your client to focus on doing their job to the best of their ability.