Get a Headline or Get Lost

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Sports Illustrated reporter Lindsay Schnell just schooled Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby on why media training is every executive’s responsibility. The bottom line is this: if you’re not willing to take the time to develop a few key messages on topics you’ll be asked about at a media day event, you shouldn’t be near the event, let alone a camera.

Schnell rightly dismantled Bowlsby after the commissioner addressed the Baylor University sexual assault scandal in his opening statement with this line, “It almost goes without saying that when you combine alcohol and drugs and raging hormones and the experience of 18- to 22-year-olds, it’s probably unrealistic to think that these kinds of things are never going to happen.”

Tone deaf doesn’t come close enough to characterizing this remark. Fact is, I haven’t read a statement this dumb since Clayton Williams was running for Texas Governor.

Read Schnell’s reaction to the statement and send her a thank you note. She got it exactly right. Bowlsby completely missed the mark. His statement, then his responses to follow up questions, show he was utterly unprepared. How in the world could an executive of his stature, in a public forum, be so flat-footed on an issue that so deeply affects student athletes and their families? It’s too exasperating to run down all the possibilities but one thing is for certain, on this issue and in that moment, Bowlsby had no headline message. As a result, he got lost.

It’s too exasperating to run down all the possibilities but one thing is for certain, on this issue and in that moment, Bowlsby had no headline message. As a result, he got lost.

Headline messaging requires thoughtfulness. All the constraints – legal, social, and rhetorical – of the situation have to be considered. The audience’s expectations have to be mapped out and the perspective of key stakeholders has to be anticipated. This takes a significant amount of time, but it has to be done before you can even begin word crafting.

Headline message writing starts by acknowledging that the headline is the most important message you want to deliver on a given subject. It’s the one idea above all others you want the audience to hear and understand. Put another way, your headline message is what you have to convey regardless of the questions that get asked. These definitions provide the framework for a big idea, but also serve as a criterion for judging the headline message once it’s crafted.

With the big idea in hand, start thinking like a newspaper copy writer. Good newspaper headlines are short, memorable and provocative enough to pull a reader’s eyes into an article. The most effective headline messages are expressive, sometimes have a double meaning and make very clever use of wonderful-to-hear rhetorical phrases.

If it’s not already on your bookshelf, Mark Forsyth’s The Element’s of Eloquence should be your next book buy. Forsyth puts all the secrets of attention-getting phrase turns into this book, and several of the tools he discusses at length are perfect for turning words into masterful headline messages. Rhymes, alliterations and tricolons are three of the most effective forms. Assuming most everyone knows how a rhyme works, it’s worth a quick reminder that alliterations are words containing the same starting letter. Do the headlines, “Flash Crash” or “Panama Papers,” ring a bell? They both meet good headline message criteria. Tricolons are more difficult, because as Forsyth explains, “With a tricolon you can set up a pattern and then break it.” A few examples: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” “Blood, sweat and tears;” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” The beautiful thing about tricolons is that once said, nothing is left unsaid; the list and the idea are complete. That’s powerful messaging.

Without question, if you use one of these devices your headline message will stand out and stick in people’s minds. As a bonus, you’ll have a response to the best question a reporter can ask in an interview: “Anything else you’d like to add?” When that question is asked, repurpose the headline message into a tail-end message to finish off the interview with style and control.

I can’t honestly say how well Commissioner Bowlsby prepared for Big 12 media day. He may have spent hours working through his thoughts. Unfortunately, when he had the opportunity, he didn’t deliver the message the victims of campus sexual assault deserved. Like Ken Starr did in this disastrous interview on the same subject, Bowlsby may have just had a bad moment, or he may have had two or three lawyers in his ears. Whatever the reason, he owes it to college athletics to have a clear policy on his expectations for the behavior of student athletes, a zero-tolerance posture on the issue of sexual crimes, and a perfectly crafted headline message to ensure no one can misinterpret his position on the issue as tone deaf.

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