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Press Conferences in a Crisis: Belichick and Deflate-Gate

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick held two press conferences to address the “deflate-gate” controversy that has taken over sports headlines since the Patriot’s dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots, and Belichick as its head coach, are accused of underinflating game-day footballs against league rules.

After nearly a week of increasing hype and Patriot’s silence, Bill Belichick took the podium on Thursday morning in an attempt to quell the deflate-gate firestorm. His performance was lacking both in content and delivery and, thus, only fanned the sports talk radio flames that had been raging since the crisis broke. Then, in a surprising move, Belichick returned to face the cameras again on Saturday. He performed better in his second press conference and public reaction was more positive. Let’s take a look at some “lessons learned” from both of Belichick’s press conferences during the Patriot’s deflate-gate crisis.

Be Prepared (and have something to say):

Belichick’s ill-fated press conference on Thursday was a rambling, disorganized seemingly off-the-cuff performance. His overall message was that he had no idea what had happened to the footballs, and he offered only vague denials of the Patriot’s culpability. During his prepared remarks, he included the point that he forces the Patriots to practice with footballs that are as “bad as they can be.” This was a completely irrelevant point that had little to do with the current controversy. It served only to further the impression that he was trying to obfuscate rather than provide the facts of the situation as he knew them. Overall, his lack of a real message frustrated the media and created further doubt among football fans who already were skeptical of the coach due to prior transgressions.

In contrast to his first performance, Belichick’s prepared remarks on Saturday were very organized. He explained the Patriot’s investigation into the matter, and what they believed to be the factors that may have caused the footballs’ deflationary condition. While he offered no proof of the Patriot’s innocence, his message had direction and purpose.

Speak Confidently

Belichick appeared uncharacteristically unsure of himself at Thursday’s press conference. He spoke in halting phrases and constantly looked down at the podium. In contrast, on Saturday the coach held a confident speaking tone throughout the press conference. One powerful reason to hold a press conference during a crisis is to display confidence and build credibility. If you are going to put yourself in front of the media you must speak with authority. Otherwise, just issue a simple written media statement and eliminate the risk of a crisis-escalating gaffe.

Watch your Body Language

Belichick is known for his dour “I don’t care what you think” speaking style. Even within that context, Belichick could have displayed better credibility and confidence using more effective body language at both press conferences (but especially Thursday). First, he demonstrated poor eye contact, frequently looking down at the podium. Not only does this lower credibility, it reduces the connection with the audience. He also frequently pursed his lips, which is seen by some body language experts as a sign of shame – not good for someone trying to defend his reputation. His body language on Saturday was incrementally better, with improved eye contact and less negative body language gestures.

The Truth Matters

Belichick took a stand on Saturday, declaring that he and his team had “followed every rule to the letter.” Making such declarative statements can be a powerful way to build credibility in a crisis…unless it comes back to bite you. If it is eventually revealed that the Patriots were, in fact, guilty of football tampering, Belichick’s reputation will be damaged beyond repair. Think of all-star baseball player Raphael Palmeiro waving his finger at congress categorically denying that he ever took performance enhancing drugs: "Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never." Less than six months later, Palmeiro was suspended for testing positive for steroids, and his reputation was forever ruined.

Belichick entered his Thursday press conference ill-prepared to address the media -- both in terms of content and delivery. As a result, his attempt to quell the deflate-gate controversy backfired. On Saturday, he returned with a focused message and a much more credible delivery. As of the writing of this blog, the crisis is far from over, but Belichick’s follow-up press conference performance was a much better attempt at mitigating the hit to the Patriot’s reputation. When you are in crisis (whether you are accused of underinflating, overinflating or tampering with football, basketballs, baseballs or foosballs in any way), remember to organize your prepared remarks with a focused message, and deliver that message with a credible speaking style.

Sharon Merrill Executive VP and Partner and (in the interest of full disclosure) life-long Patriots fan David Calusdian provides presentation training and message development for company executives facing a range of crises.

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