In 2003, during the investigation into steroid use among Major League Baseball players, many players issue denials. Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi never denies his use to the grand jury, but it takes him four more years to publicly acknowledge it and apologize.
“I was wrong for doing that stuff,” Giambi admits to USA Today in 2007. “What we should have done a long time ago was stand up—players, ownership, everybody—and said: ‘We made a mistake.’”
Not only apologizing, but also admitting he should have done so earlier, wins Giambi kudos in the media as well as public goodwill. The ballplayer’s transparency helps him to move on from the investigation and continue his career. In contrast, we have the example of Tiger Woods and his very scripted, über-controlled February 2010 press conference, following his very public November 2009 domestic incident and its fallout. He is so overly coached—probably by lawyers more than by PR people—that he offers just about everything except a sincere explanation for why he is finally speaking publicly and what he hopes to accomplish by holding the press conference. Woods begins the press conference by saying, “I know people want to find out how I could be so selfish and so foolish. People want to know how I could have done these things to my wife Elin and to my children.” However, he never answers those very questions. He is open about some of the facts of the incident, and he’s very apologetic, but he’s not transparent about what led to the incident and what his objective is for the press conference. It’s a show of shows, for sure, but it gives too little to his verycurious audience.
The bottom line with transparency is this: If something is true and real and you’re thinking it, feeling it, or wanting it, then communicate it. When a batter squares to bunt, people know what’s coming. You might as well be the leader who also lets people know what’s coming. Be straight up with information as well as with your feelings and reactions. When faced with a crisis or criticism, call it out, tell it like it is, and own up, rather than being the Grand Master of Duck and Cover, Chief Whitewasher, or Captain Backtrack. The discerning audiences you face will give you props for being up front, direct, and genuine.
“Transparency” has become one of those twenty-first century buzzwords, used to measure how open, honest, and aboveboard corporate or government officials are. It’s an important word, and it has found its way into our common vocabulary with good reason: We want and need more transparency. Audiences demand it.
Over the last forty years, we have become a society that values harsh truths and authenticity over comforting appearances. The opportunities created by the Internet and digital media have given us windows onto people and organizations that we didn’t have before. These windows make it easier to access and scrutinize all kinds of information. People can now find, opine about, or even fabricate “truths” online. More important, average people—your customers, employees, and peers—are always on the lookout for truth and authenticity, and, whether consciously or not, they’re running your words and your conduct through those filters.
Our perception of all public figures, including professional athletes, is almost an exaggerated version of this phenomenon of access and scrutiny. We decide, without knowing these people and without ever having been in their presence, whether they’re genuinely admirable and worship-worthy or just full of themselves—and full of crap. Transparency can make or break our opinion of them.
There are two kinds of transparency: One deals with being open, honest, and forthright with information; the other, being open, honest, and forthright with feelings or reactions. Transparency
calls for truth and authenticity in both cases. When you speak publicly, transparency applies to both your content and your delivery. Are you transparent in words and emotion? Do they match? What does your demeanor suggest about how authentic and trustworthy you are? Are you trying to spin the situation, are you holding back, or are you spilling it all out? And are you acknowledging your feelings? For example, would you say something like, “This situation is emotional for me, so bear with me while I get it all out” or “I wish I could say more, but I can’t at this time” or “I have tough news to share, but I’m going to try and put the best possible light on it so you see the bright side”?
Managing a fall from grace—for an athlete or any other public figure—requires opening oneself up with as much honest information and genuine feeling as possible. What’s at stake are the obvious desirables of likeability, credibility, trust, and respect. Yet the natural reaction to being criticized—especially publicly criticized—is to block, tackle, and defend. Instead, my preferred strategy, and the one I use when I counsel clients, is to pause and think for a moment, stay calm, and then stand tall and own the criticism if it’s true and if there’s good reasoning behind it.
In other words, I tend to look at criticism as bad packaging for good material.
Communications coach Beth Noymer Levine is an expert in helping Fortune 500 executives, professional and world-class athletes, and other high-profile individuals effectively think about, prepare for, and deliver their messages to important audiences. She is known for her rapport with her clients, her quick understanding of their business and communications challenges, and her emphasis on speeches and presentations that work for both the audience and the speaker.
The founder of SmartMouth Communications, Levine has more than twenty-five years’ experience in public relations and communications and has worked on both the agency and corporate sides, in New York and Atlanta. She currently maintains an office in Salt Lake City and an active presence on both coasts. Levine has written speeches, developed messaging strategies, and coached business executives, politicians, other professionals, and, notably, athletes. Her clients have included members of the Utah Jazz, the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding, the U.S. Speedskating Team, and several collegiate athletes.
A native of Boston, Levine has a degree in economics from Franklin & Marshall College, has completed a post-MBA program at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and holds certificates in training and in coaching from the American Society for Training and Development.
Levine is also the creator of the “SmartMouth Public Speaking Toolkit,” a five-star-rated mobile app for iOS devices available in the iTunes store (app.lk/smartmouth).
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