SBJ/Oct. 13-19, 2014/Opinion

In social-media driven world, leaders must check ‘thermostat’

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The emotionally charged events that continue to take place in the sports industry have given us a great to deal to contemplate about the industry, its leadership, our society and, not least of all, ourselves. Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio recently said that public figures need to “check the temperature in the room” to see how these very visible leaders should be communicating. Having watched the ineptitude of these same communication activities on television and online, I thought his comment was spot-on.

Everyone understands the function of a thermostat. A thermostat controls the temperature of a room, which in turn creates a comfortable atmosphere in which we work, relax and conduct our lives. In further exploring the concept, comfort has a personal dimension not only in terms of temperature, but also with regard to one’s surroundings, interactions, feelings, and ability to communicate about those things to the various types of people with whom one interacts. Comfort is a critical factor in determining how well one is heard, understood, valued and accepted, which ultimately determines how one is able to build relationships.

Comfort also has an external dimension that affects each of the elements I just mentioned. In other words, how comfortable are other people with you, how you conduct your business, how you express yourself, what you believe, and how you manage or influence those around you. I seem to remember a concept called the “sphere of influence” from my undergraduate days as a political science major at Oklahoma State. Depending upon one’s position and organizational status, as in the case of the commissioner of a professional sports league or the owner of a team, the size and the impact (or lack thereof) of one’s sphere of influence can vary dramatically.

The events of the past 60 days have also driven home the point that the thermostat can be raised very quickly by forces outside of one’s personal sphere, causing an uncomfortable situation for a variety of people. The adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is not only true to this day, but hugely underestimated, perhaps it is a billion words or even a trillion words. These outside forces come in the collective term of social media, a universe where content is created, managed, shared and conveyed well outside of the traditional forms of communication. That communication comes at a rate of speed that many of us were unaware of and unprepared to deal with the results.

There are new rules — everyone can create and share content at any time and in any place. There is no requirement that the content come from a credible source with a defined context, or follow any rules or regulations. Traditional media’s stance that it doesn’t pay for information has been shattered by upstart TMZ largely because the public that wants the information has no issue about whether it was purchased.

   
The scenarios involving (from left) Jameis Winston, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice were all handled poorly, and temperatures rose quickly.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (3)
Influencers abound. There is a multitude of forums to express support or opposition, all of it public, which continues to influence temperature and comfort.

Decisions that might never have been questioned are now scrutinized. Evidence or information that might never have been shared is available for all to debate and criticize. The rules have changed, and so has our level of comfort and the control of our thermostats.

The scenarios involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Jameis Winston were all handled poorly because no one checked the thermostat of the various groups and causes that were affected by the initial attempts to resolve these issues.

As a result of not checking the thermostat, or in some cases, not being close enough to the thermostat to make an adjustment, the temperature rose very quickly and became very uncomfortable. The sad thing is it appears that this was all manageable, if not preventable, by a few maintenance tips:

Empowerment and use of a proactive and skilled crisis manager who understands both traditional media and social media. Such a person has a better understanding of the temperature and how things can quickly become uncomfortable, and possesses the skills to alter the temperature.

A hiring plan that provides for diversity in leadership positions, not just diversity throughout the organization. Diversity can help provide the appropriate sounding board and represent thoughts, perspectives and career experiences not easily understood by those affected less directly. Diversity should help create policy, not merely implement it.

Thorough investigative processes that prevent not just a rush to judgment, but a rush to premature resolution.

Realistic consequences that are not only corrective, but helpful to those who have suffered.

Realization that your brand, institution or self is the aggregation of everything that you have accomplished combined with everything you should have done but failed to do.

We all need to become aware of how our personal thermostat and level of comfort affect others. Controlling how we feel doesn’t necessarily measure how we are being perceived and how others feel about our message or us.

Just because we are cool and comfortable doesn’t mean the room is at the optimum temperature. It could mean a lack of sensitivity.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.


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