Sports World Examples Emphasize Need for Listening

typing on cell phone

One of the most obvious ways for organizations to anticipate a potential PR crisis is to keep their ear to the ground. Social listening, as well as monitoring consumer sentiment and timely issues, can help prevent a spark from burning out of control. 

Several organizations were in the news this week for listening to stakeholders and acting.

The Australian Open reversed a decision banning fans from wearing t-shirts supporting Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. 

Initially, Open fans were ordered to remove shirts that read "Where is Peng Shuai?" before entering the stands. The top Chinese tennis player was involved in a controversy late last year and briefly 'vanished.'

It wasn't difficult for Open leadership to hear the opposition. Human rights groups, the international tennis community and even Australia's minister of defense spoke out against the t-shirt ban. 

“Whether your critics are key industry players, your customers, or your employees, good leadership requires listening,” says Eric Yaverbaum, CEO, Ericho Communications. “When called out, it’s easy to want to jump on the defensive." Instead, he says, "fight that urge at all costs. Don’t defend, don’t deflect, simply listen.”

However, Yaverbaum also says time is of the essence when a potential PR crisis gains speed. 

'Listening is Leadership'

“Whether it be from a rash decision, inadequate knowledge about the situation, or even from growing and evolving views, everyone makes the wrong call at some point,” he says. As such, "you need to own [your mistake] and take the appropriate steps to remedy it immediately." In addition, he says this needs to be "clearly and effectively communicated" so stakeholders can see "you are working to make things right.” 

Another sports organization, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, created a confidential employee hotline in the wake of harassment and violence allegations made against Robert Sarver, the team's majority owner. The NBA is investigating Sarver.  

ESPN reports the NBA instituted a hotline for workplace violations in 2018, but received no calls. A possible reason: Suns' president and CEO Jason Rowley told his organization at the time that callers have the option to remain anonymous, but ‘...if you make an anonymous complaint, someone could still guess your identity from the circumstances or other information you provide.’

Trust Issues

Obviously, if no one trusts an anonymous hotline, it's useless as a listening tool.

“It’s well known that employees rarely trust or take advantage of anonymous hotlines—much less a League-initiated one,” says Kathleen Hessert, founder and president of Sports Media Challenge. “The current employee empowerment trend also has an undercurrent of distrust toward corporations, leading employees to try...more public channels to voice their concerns.”

Hessert says social media and chat rooms offer the easiest way for fans or employees to offer opinions. They're also some of the easiest to monitor.  

“Deep listening systems and AI make it easy to listen to fans and foes in near real-time,” Hessert says. “The best organizations not only monitor, they actually listen, convert the data into insights and factor it into their decision-making (including who the influencers are, what they're talking about and where and general sentiment).” 

Hessert says she likes working with heat maps that outline when a conversation or sentiment is bubbling up in a geographical area.

“When the Raiders were concerned about blowback about Marshawn Lynch not standing for the National Anthem, I could tell them within 10 minutes that it wasn’t their fans or even football fans who were criticizing them, but [conservative] bots…perpetuating the controversy to further their…positions. Who was complaining and why makes a difference in how someone responds.”

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal