Another Lions test and another lesson in how to manage the media as a professional sports manager. This time, a lesson on how to negotiate a losing press conference.
After last night’s loss to the British and Irish Lions, the All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen had to front the media as a loser. For an All Blacks manager losing is rare, but when it does happen it can be particularly face-threatening. The New Zealand public expect their team to win, and when they don’t, well, the country (or perhaps the country’s media) doesn’t take it that well.
Yet, in the face of this pressure, Hansen came armed with a couple of messages that will have helped him to negotiate the loss in a way that I’m sure New Zealanders and the gathered global media will have appreciated.
First and foremost, he gave the Lions a lot of credit. Giving credit to the winning team is an obvious go-to move for losing managers. But, managers will differ a lot on how much credit they are prepared to give. Steve Hansen didn’t direct the credit to anyone in particular, but he did go as far as to acknowledge the Lions were the better team and deserved their win.
This, I imagine, would’ve been quite hard to swallow. While there is a lot to be gained in the humility stakes for such comments, when you’re the best team in the world and striving to remain on top, admissions of this kind can take a bit of a chunk out of your aura. Yet, Hansen put this aside and afforded a good deal of praise to the opposition. He even emphasised that credit several times which will have won him fans and favour from both sides of the battleground.
He also didn’t attempt to hide, deflect from or make light of a major transgression by one of his own players. Again, this would’ve been quite a hard message to deliver as it is a manager’s prerogative to protect their players. However, Hansen’s primary concern as he publicly mulled over the Sonny-Bill Williams red card was that of player safety. He initially went with the ‘could’ve been a yellow’ line – an option for managers looking to try to defend their own players – but, to his credit, settled on a version that showed concern for Anthony Watson.
Messages like the above will have gone a long way to keeping the Northern Hemisphere journalists satisfied and focused on writing stories about their own team’s victory (instead of giving them reason to write an ‘All Blacks are bad losers’ piece). However, Hansen also took the opportunity to go into bat for his own team during the press conference, which is another important consideration for losing managers approaching a presser.
It can sometimes be lost on managers that the audience of their media interviews and press conferences also includes their own team – not directly, but indirectly in the way messages are re-construed and reported on in the follow up media. For managers approaching the interview booth, then, it is important to think about what you want your team to hear (and/or not hear) from you, as your comments will likely play a starring role in the sound-bite echo-chamber in the build-up to the next match. If many cases, this is a question of biting your lip and concentrating on what not to say.
However, Hansen was positive and talked up the excitement of the series decider in Auckland next week. He also began his press conference with what was perhaps his primary message: how proud he was of his team for managing nearly three-quarters of a tough international test with a man sent off. No matter how good you are as a team, hearing this from your manager in a losing effort is likely to be formative.
Designing messages after a loss that motivate, instil confidence and celebrate your own team is a way in which a manager can continue managing long after the final whistle has gone. The good managers will find positive ways to manage their team in many of their professional interactions, both back stage and front.
As a lesson in managing losing press conferences, I think this one provides some useful examples. Making good decisions in losing media interviews and press conferences that help you to come across as respectful, concerned with player welfare, but also a competitive and dogged supporter of your own team is crucial for protecting your own image and the image and brand of the team you are managing.
For any manager, losing is very hard to do. But, once the final whistle has gone, for the team and manager that has lost, finding ways to be a good loser suddenly becomes the most immediate goal.