Hasn’t Warren Gatland done well? He’s managed to get players from four different teams gelling and performing as a unit. The team’s game plan appears to be working, and this Saturday they go into the ultimate test buoyed by a couple of good results.
Warren’s performances off the field in press conferences have also been commendable. He has, by and large, been respectful of the opposition, seems positive, and has also found opportunities to send a polite psychological barb or two across the fence (all useful strategies for managers in the depths of a high pressure, high stakes sporting campaign). He has even been entertaining, providing the travelling and local media with a series of engaging headlines to help them pump up the excitement of the tour.
One headline that did cause the campaign a bit of early trouble, however, was generated from Warren’s comments comparing Super Rugby sides to the All Blacks. After an early loss to the Auckland Blues, a journalist asked if the loss would affect momentum and confidence within the team considering they had bigger challenges ahead. In responding, Warren said no and backed this up by suggesting there was little difference between the Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks, as the Super sides had been together for months and the All Blacks would be coming together cold. The New Zealand media jumped on the remarks, casting them and the manager as delusional and perhaps disrespectful to the national side.
I don’t think Warren meant any offence in making these comments. In fact, they could even be interpreted as complimentary of New Zealand rugby depth. These comments were probably directed more at his own players, trying to minimise any psychological damage caused by the loss. However, there is a lesson in this example for all managers who need to speak to the media; be explicit about what you mean and what you don’t mean, especially when making comments of a potentially explosive nature.
For linguists, a key principle about language use is that the meaning derived from our language choices is negotiable. What a person says and what meaning their audience draw is always up for a negotiation. Sports managers and athletes know this more than most and will regularly find the subtleties and nuances of their comments lost in the interpretation processes of a journalist or headline-happy editor. In many regards, the way quotes are interpreted and shaped into stories says as much about the journalist, their publication and their audience as it does about the person who uttered them.
A weapon managers have in this regard is clarity or explicitness. By being explicit you are taking control of the message and not relying on the journalist to see the world exactly as you wish to portray it. While I didn’t feel Warren meant to offend the All Blacks, he perhaps didn’t deal with this potential reading of his comments. Had Warren taken the extra step of qualifying or mitigating is comments (i.e. ‘and by that I don’t mean any disrespect to the All Blacks, rather I mean there is great depth in New Zealand rugby’), he may have forced opinion writers and journalists in a different direction. Another move managers can use is to explicitly acknowledge it when a comment might be considered controversial. In doing this you give off the impression that you have at least thought about it and considered several readings of it, which index someone sane of mind and not delusional.
In short, managers should be aware that it is their prerogative to direct journalists towards what they mean. It mightn’t always work, but at least by orienting to the goal of removing potentially problematic (for you and your team) readings of your comments you give yourself a better chance of controlling the message.