Student-Athlete Media Training: The LSU Way
LSU Sports Interactive
The following feature was written by Ron Higgins, NOLA.com/The Times Picayune's LSU columnist.
Read it here: LSU Tigers learn how to talk the talk | Ron's Fast Break
LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings is smiling nervously and shifting his weight from foot to foot.
He's not trying to read a defense just before taking a snap on fourth-and-goal with the game on the line.
No, the guy who calmly came off the bench late in last year's regular season finale and guided LSU on a 99-yard game-winning drive against Arkansas, is standing in front of someone peppering him with questions.
"There's a big controversy at quarterback this year, who's going to start?
"How good can Brandon Harris be?
"Is he better than you?
"Is he that good?
"You made throw of lifetime against Arkansas and then led the Tigers to a bowl game. Don't you think you deserve to be a starter?"
The questioner, LSU marketing professor Dr. Tommy Karam, is doing his best on Wednesday afternoon on the first week of the Tigers' preseason practice to accelerate and jumble Jennings' thought process. He wants him to slip and say something that would be immediately tweeted, igniting a juicy controversy that would give media an unexpected, but welcomed storyline.
Karam, an LSU graduate, is the school's athletic media trainer. It's his job to educate athletes on adapting their roles as public figures and becoming adept dealing with the media.
"Most of these kids are very uncomfortable, maybe even intimidated by doing interviews," Karam said. "They are leery, because they've seen so many athletes get burned in interviews."
Karam's challenge gets greater every year, because of the growth of social media, which has meshed with traditional media.
Almost anything a coach or player says or does in just about any situation, on or off the field, can be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Vine within seconds.
Social media has skyrocketed paranoia to unparalleled levels.
It's why practices and locker rooms that were once open to the media are now closed. It's why head coaches are kings of controlling the message by (in some cases) not allowing assistants or true freshmen to speak with the media.
It has created an "us vs. them" environment between schools and the media which almost every college sports information director like LSU's Michael Bonnette has to referee.
Once upon a time, probably back when Louis Bonnette, Michael's dad started his legendary 46-year career as McNeese State's sports information director, the charges of a SID were to assist the media as much as possible and publicize athletes.
But as college sports became all about making millions of dollars and public image, the SID job description changed. The SIDs first priority now is protecting a program's brand.
Caught in the middle are the athletes. They've seen and read enough about players saying the wrong thing, drawing the wrath of their head coaches and getting sautéed by the media and fans.
So for the sake of the school and the athlete, the SID and media trainer have to work together to encourage skittish athletes to become media savvy.
Bonnette and Karam made this perfectly clear at one of this past week's media training sessions held in the Tigers' team room at the Charles McClendon practice facility.
"You're forever an LSU Tiger," Bonnette told a group of players before introducing Karam. "With that goes a responsibility to deal with the media ... use the media to tell your story.
"These are all opportunities to enhance your image, increase your brand and do something that will carry you for a lifetime."
Added Karam, "On the Forbes 500 list of the most valuable college football programs in America, LSU is No. 4. The value is astronomical. It means people like you, people watch you.
"Who wants to leave here with your brand tarnished? If that happens, pro scouts, owners and coaches will wait longer to draft you and employee you. If you end up working outside of football and your brand is good through the way you handled the incredible exposure you had, employers are able to see you in a positive way."
Few athletes enter college feeling confident about handling media. Hardly any are like future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who probably grabbed a rattle in his crib and held it to his mouth like a microphone.
Peyton watched his dad Archie all those years as the Saints' quarterback deliver postgame interviews, win or lose, with poise and class. It was a perfect example to follow.
But since most players don't have that luxury, it's up to media trainers like Karam to pass on some basic tips. Take note future college athletes. These are things you can start working on immediately such as:
The art of the pause: When a question is asked, pause for a second before you speak.
"Football is a game of speed, and you have to think quick," Karam said. "But before answering a question, take about a second or so before you answer. Sort out the question, give an answer and you've got to know when to stop."
Have a default look that helps people see you in a positive light: A default look is the expression you have when you're not paying attention to how you look.
"Likeability is the key element for personal branding, especially when being interviewed," Karam said. "The No. 1 fact you need to be likeable is personality. The only way your personality is going to be seen is through your facial expression. Since athletes never know when the camera is on them, they must develop a likeable default look."
Be engaging: Keep a pleasant tone in your voice when you answer the question. Face the questioner. Make it conversational. Engage with the reporter, not the microphone (or tape recorder).
"David Beckham and Michael Jordan do something called the two-touch rule," Karam said. "Both guys will touch reporter or photographer in the room twice. It could be a handshake, it could be a wink, it could be a tap. There's something in behavioral sciences that says a touch in some way endears you to a reporter."
Stay poised: Don't be offended if a reporter asks a rude question. Maintain your poise, rely on your default look. Be gracious.
LSU senior running back Terrence Magee, one of the three Tigers' who represented LSU at SEC media days in Birmingham, vouches for the training.
"I thought I was comfortable dealing with the media until the first day I came to media training as a freshman," Magee said, "He (Karam) started interviewing me, and before I knew it, he had me arguing back and forth with him. He said, 'Now, I got you.'"
These days, Karam uses Magee as an example of how to flawlessly handle an interview in the face of pointed questions
In Wednesday's training, Karam asked Magee in a mock interview, "How long do you think before Leonard Fournette (the Tigers' freshman signee who was the nation's No. 1 high school recruit last season) replaces you as a starter?"
Magee paused a beat and then said, "To be honest, we don't have a starter. We have a first starter, a second starter, a third starter and a fourth starter."
Every player in the meeting room started applauding.
Karam will be the first to say all players have different comfort levels, no matter if they are a freshman or a senior.
For instance, Fournette, thoroughly seasoned at handling interviews as his prep fame increased, breezed through a mock interview with Karam so effortlessly Wednesday afternoon he drew claps of approval from his teammates.
But in the morning session, another freshman answered one of Karam's questions with such a naïve lack of humility that there were audible gasps throughout the room.
That's okay with Karam. It's why he's there.
"You don't have to love dealing the media," he said. "But you've got to be good doing it."
For most athletes like Jennings, it's a work in progress. The more snaps he takes in practice to become at ease as a starting quarterback candidate, the more questions he'll get to answer to comfortably hone his responses.
Going back to the beginning of this column, here are Jennings' answers to Karam's questions:
"That's not for me to decide. I come in everyday at practice and try and get better. Competition makes all quarterbacks better. Whoever comes out first at the beginning of the season I think we'll be in great hands.
"I think he'll be one of the top quarterbacks ever (at LSU) with his skill set.
"I come in every day to better myself.
"Yes, he's very good.
"Those games are in the past and we're looking into the future. We have quarterbacks now and running backs here competing for jobs. It's about coming in and competing."