Map Out Your Messaging Strategies in a Changing Culture

SPUR FOR CHANGE: Becky Hammon is the first full-time female assitance coach hired by an NBA club. The move could raise the bar for how companies and organizations respond to cultural and societal shifts.
SPUR FOR CHANGE: Becky Hammon is the first full-time female assitance coach hired by an NBA club. The move could raise the bar for how companies and organizations respond to cultural and societal shifts.

When the San Antonio Spurs tip off their season in late October, the sports media will run the obligatory stories about how the defending world champions intend to return to NBA Finals in 2015. But there’ll be another aspect to the media coverage that may put a bigger spotlight on the organization: the debut of Becky Hammon, whom the Spurs hired earlier this month as the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach.

The move is likely to have an impact on how the Spurs approach their overall messaging, media training and media relations. It will also attract new media outlets and new (female) fans who have not previously followed the NBA.

The Spurs’ PR team probably started to strategize as soon as the hiring was finalized, according to PR industry observers.

Hammon’s debut is “going to be a media sensation, at least for a bit,” said Kristen Sharkey, executive VP of Makovsky. “She’s likely already been given some media training and some homework assignments. She’ll need a refresher course so that, from a messaging perspective, she’s comfortable with what she’s saying and her comments are aligned with what senior executives at the Spurs are saying.”

Hiring Hammon also gives the Spurs an opportunity to reach new audiences and expand its media footprint. “You’ll have new media outlets looking at the move through a different prism—what does this mean for women?” said David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. “Communicators need to show that this is not a PR move, but a cultural shift for the entire league, and what the team is doing to cultivate a new generation of female fans.”


Indeed, the Spurs’ move raises myriad questions for communicators that they may not necessarily have confronted in the past. Whether it’s women breaking the glass ceiling (in an industry dominated by men), gay marriage, income inequality or immigration reform, several societal and cultural issues are starting to come to the fore.

Fueled by the Web, both social activists and consumers are increasingly demanding that brands and organizations stake their position on hot-button issues. And the responses can’t be condensed into few sound bites.

“Social media has given a voice to the socially active, who now expect brands to tell a story about their values and know whether consumers share those values,” Johnson said.

For example, companies including American Airlines, Apple, AT&T and Intel earlier this year called on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto a bill permitting businesses to refuse service on religious grounds, allowing them to discriminate against same-sex couples.

At the time, AT&T issued the following statement: “While the stated intention may not be to discriminate, we believe the actual language could open the door to discrimination against anyone, including those the bill is intended to protect.” (Brewer vetoed the bill.)


“Companies have to balance their dialogue and the messages they want to share within the context of larger cultural changes,” said Anne Green, president-CEO of CooperKatz. “They now have an opportunity to connect with different groups of people through multiple channels. But it has to come from an authentic place.”

Green recommended three tips for PR managers who need to think more strategically about how their brands and organizations can best respond to cultural changes, including whether their company will want to take a leadership role regarding the issues in question.

1. Conduct a pre-analysis of how a story may unfold. Communicators need to anticipate what kind of questions they’ll get from both the media and consumers—pro, con or neutral—and craft some initial responses for spokespeople and the organization as a whole.

2. Understand top executives’ intentions. It’s important for senior PR managers to be a conduit between the employee who is being interviewed and senior management to ensure that all messages are aligned with both the organization’s values and its overall mission, which plays into the third tip.

3. Strive for balance. Communicators can play an important role in striking a balance between the media’s interest in an issue and the mission of the organization.

With many cultural issues continuing to swirl around the country, PR pros have to prepare to potentially answer some tough questions, according to Makovsky’s Sharkey. “You can say all the words you want but you have to make sure you walk the talk,” she said.

PR Tips for Excelling in the ‘Big News’ Game

Barbara Bates
Barbara Bates

Bold moves make news one way or another. When companies make history with high-impact business or cultural decisions—such as the San Antonio Spurs’ hiring Becky Hammon as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach—they must take charge of their destiny or others will do it for them. Brands need to position themselves vis-à-vis the decision, set the tone, create context and put it all in perspective. That’s how you win the “big news” game. Some PR tips for you to consider:

1. Zoom out. Even look back. Position your game-changing move in the context of your entire company history, story, and brand. Use the news to reinforce that perspective. Hire a female coach and many will jump on the “female” aspect. But if your commitment has always been to hire the best talent, that’s your story. You’ll drive continuity, broaden perspective and shift the conversation for a more holistic impact. Step back and see your news as one point in the long-term timeline you’ve built.

2. Calm the hype. Even when it’s great big news, apply the rules of crisis communication. Strip out the spin and focus on transparent, honest quotes. Be thoughtful—even reflective—as you talk about impact. See this as a moment in time, not your one shot at glory. A great exercise: imagine the story a year from now (even five years) and think about how you want to look back at it. Discipline yourself, even if you could use the news to grab attention. Take a deep breath. Think “quality,” not quantity.

3. Make friends. If it’s really big news, it’s going to take you beyond your usual audience reach. Work it. Think about who might be listening. Make them feel so welcome they stay for your next news. Use the moment to connect new dots at the edge of your traditional markets and your reach and ratings will move in the right direction.

If your news is about a new hire, coach him or her on your thinking. They’re part of your brand now, of your timeline, and of your big-picture story. Focus on the big picture. Stay cool and balanced. And deflect the glory of the moment onto all of the things you’re doing well. Focus on the bigger game and you’ll be more likely to play like a pro.

This sidebar was written by Barbara Bates, CEO and founder of Eastwick. She can be reached at 



Anne Greene,; David Johnson,; Kristen Sharkey,

This article originally appeared in the August 18, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.