After decades of working with and dealing with the media on a wide range of topics and matters, one of the more common patterns I’ve noticed is something that President Teddy Roosevelt spoke about in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Before we do, it’s important to understand what this has to do with the public relations business.
If you work with reporters who cover business, or politics, or sports, or medicine, or something else, no matter how long they’ve been doing their jobs, and no matter how smart they are, most are missing the one thing that prevents them from getting the whole picture – experience. Experience that the people they cover have.
Reporters who cover publicly traded companies have no idea what it’s like to have to meet quarterly earnings estimates. If they did, a lot of the coverage would be more nuanced, more comprehensive and more well-rounded. Instead, a story about missed earnings is likely to focus simply on the products that didn’t meet sales expectations, or something closer to the surface level of the organization.
Sports reporters who cover football, more often than not never even played organized football at any level, let alone college or professional. So, when they analyze team or player performance, they tend to dwell on the data. Passing yards, touchdowns, tackles, interceptions. How tall is he? What does he weigh? I’ve personally known quite a few very good sports reporters who’ve spent many more hours than I have in stadiums and on practice fields, even though I’ve spent my share. But they don’t know what I do.
They don’t know what it’s like to play with a broken bone, to come off of a concussion and play a game, to conceal certain injuries so the coaches won’t go with someone else, or to try to do your best on the field when you know the guy to your left, or to your right, or even in the coach’s cap, isn’t trying to win the game. You know that in the moment they may have other priorities. Once you’ve experienced this, you can spot it.
Of course, none of this shows up on a spreadsheet or a scouting report. Players and coaches don’t reveal this to anyone. Often, the only way to see it is to have been through it, and yet these are the variables that determine outcomes.
The PR Arena
In my experience in public relations, a lot of my media relations work has been to try to bridge this gap. To help a reporter overcome his or her inability to truly understand the story because of lack of personal experience with the issue, and to help my client open up just enough to help that reporter understand. So, how do you do it?
There’s no magic bullet. You have to be patient, persistent and as helpful as you can be. You have to attack the story from every angle so that you jar the reporter into challenging his or her kneejerk assumptions going in. You have to get them to question whether they have the story figured out. Once you do that, you can begin with a blank slate. You want to have a more open-minded reporter who is willing to at least try to try to put themselves into the shoes of those they cover and see it from that perspective. This is more than empathy, because it’s as much an exercise in rational thought and logic as it is emotion.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Words
There were years I carried a few lines of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in my wallet or kept it close by in my office. It’s that good.
For background, President Roosevelt gave the speech that we now know as “The Man in the Arena” on April 23, 1910. At this time, he was the former President of the U.S. The current occupant of the White House was William Howard Taft.
It was a long speech, but this section of it has stood the test of time:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
To apply this to the practice of public relations is simply to understand that we have to do everything we can to be that man or woman in the arena. We have to help reporters and others to better understand what it’s like the be the one in the arena. It’s not enough to assume they know or expect them to understand. Our job is to put them into the arena.
What famous speech or quote or passage have you used for inspiration in your work? Let me know. I’d love to hear.