Reshan and I met Potts, Senior Director of Communications for ESPN, at a conference for entrepreneurs. Being participants, we were assigned to small groups run by mentors. In each group session, a mentor shared his or her story and then asked us to share a problem or opportunity that was currently on our minds. He or she would then try to share actionable advice or broader coaching to help us figure out our next steps.
The first thing I noticed about Potts (one of our mentors) was the way she blended somewhat contradictory characteristics. When she entered our room, she was strong and charismatic; some might say she “owned the room” from the start. But she was also humble and respectful. As she told a few stories about her work at ESPN, she was candid and transparent about the difficulties of PR and marketing, and the ways in which relationships and luck often make a difference in an outcome. At the same time, she was authoritative and clear — someone who had put in the time and worked hard enough at a craft to ensure a rigor of process, again and again. She was funny and fun to be around, but also appropriately serious.
When Reshan and I were writing about the way immediacy has altered communication practices for businesses, we knew we had to call Potts. It seemed to us — and still does — that she is one of the foremost practitioners of crisis communication in a time when immediacy of information, factual or not, and fair or not, shapes the large scale understanding of events. In her typical fashion, when offering advice, Potts is both pragmatic and aware of the philosophical underpinnings of her craft.
The thing with immediacy that has changed in my industry is having to let go of the foundation that so many of us were brought up with. That is, doing things the right way — everything from getting people on-board, agreeing with the message and how you are going to approach it, [and thinking about] what is responsible, what is ethical — all those things. If you try to hold onto that now, it is the scenario of, “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”
In her section of our book, Potts was reluctant to offer black and white, do-this-and-it-will-work solutions. Instead, she offers something much more valuable — the endorsement of near constant struggle. Like sport itself, we learned from Potts, communication has to be advanced yard by yard, pitch by pitch, shot by shot, lap by lap. You may lose some games, especially when, “public opinion [goes] off and running” so quickly and “everyone is a town crier.” But if you proceed like Potts (or, if you’re ESPN, with Potts), you can expect to win seasons. You can weather bad press cycles, take the time to do things right, put in stopgap measures when necessary, and contain the kinds of contradictions and multitudes that ultimately make you seem fully human to your audience. Just like Potts.
Thank you, Keri, for lending your voice to our book.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES