The Kory Sheets Scandal: PR & Holding Yourself To A Higher Standard

This was a column I wrote that ran recently. The Kory Sheets issue is dead and gone, as I predicted it would be as soon as he opened up about it. That’s the way these things work. But the main message of this column is applicable to all of us – be open, transparent, and above all else, hold yourself to the highest standard….

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Recently on CBC Saskatchewan’s ‘Blue Sky’ radio show (which is awesome, FYI), host Garth Materie asked whether or not we should hold athletes and public figures to a higher standard. He had opened the dialogue in the wake of the news that Saskatchewan Roughrider tailback Kory Sheets had been charged with domestic violence in a Florida courtroom, back in January 2013.

The news broke as Sheets was in Saskatoon for the Rider’s training, resplendent with gory details over Sheets’ female companions “busted lip” and a juicy mug shot.

I joined Garth for a chat, telling him what I tell all my public relations clients: if you want to be famous, you don’t get to pick and choose when you are famous. This means taking the public love with the hate, and managing that appropriately. That is one of the many rules of PR – I don’t make them, but I sure know what happens when they get broken.

You may label this elevated scrutiny for public figures a “higher standard”, but what it really means is that the public figure must hold him or her self to a higher standard, lest you befall a scandal like Sheets. You may also argue that Sheets just wants to play football – why should his dirty laundry be any more public than the average truck driver, plumber or nurse? The answer is simple – because CFL football players – especially in Saskatchewan, for heaven’s sake – are public figures. If I say the name ‘Kory Sheets’, the majority of you are going to know who he is. An unsettling majority of you will be able to rattle off five years of his stats, his birthdate and his blood-type. So yeah, his mug shot is kinda going to be of interest.

See how this works?

Just like last week’s column, where I (tried, anyway) to point out that those who enter public office will face scrutiny over their choices and beliefs, a similar rule applies to public figures, including athletes. This will be amplified by the market and demographic – would the same story about a Toronto Argonaut make a ripple in the Centre of the Universe? No, probably not. Those who choose to become Saskatchewan Roughrider’s must know that they will face more analysis than those in other markets. This equals awesome home games, the best fans in the world, and a whole bunch of questions to answer when you a bust a woman’s lip.

The Saskatchewan Roughrider’s made a rather amateur PR blunder when the story broke, naively indicating issuing a short statement about facts and responsibility and that “in fairness to everyone involved with this situation, the Saskatchewan Roughrider Football Club will have no further comment on this matter.” Whoops – that won’t do now will it (that’s PR rule #18, give or take a few). Telling people you’re not going to talk about something is going to have the exact opposite affect you want it to, especially the media, compounded by the rabid nature of Rider fans.

That was Monday.

On Tuesday Sheets strode onto the field and directly up to the larger than normal media throng (see: last paragraph) and answered every last question asked of him. He was “embarassed”, “not proud” and a whole bunch of other contrite attributes. He went into detail about what he learned in the domestic violence classes he was required to take as part of his sentence, completion of which resulted in in the charges being dismissed.

And with that open and honest transparency, coupled with Rider GM Brendan Taman hastily adding his comments (as opposed to “no further comments”) on Sheets being on his “final strike” – POOF! – the story magically disappeared.

See how that works?

Here’s hoping Sheets, age 28, has gleaned from this experience a whole bunch of reasons to hold himself to a higher standard.

The Public Relations Scene: Mad Men In Government

“The President is a product.” - Pete Campbell, Mad Men

For most politicians, a YouTube video showcasing their screw ups and viewed by thousands upon thousands of potential voters would equal a personal and professional public relations disaster.

Most politicians aren’t Brad Wall.

Early in the New Year the Sask Party posted a one and a half minute video on their website consisting of funny outtakes of the Premier filming his 2010 election campaign commercials. He trips over a stair, flubs his lines, and requests new takes. He betrays the odd flash of frustration as he clearly demands perfection of himself, but mostly chuckles warmly, and a bit sheepishly, at his own mistakes.

Not once does he curse, or lash out at those behind the scenes. Instead, he maintains his signature charm throughout: a powerful Premier leading one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet, yet humbly self-deprecating, displaying a solid sense of humor, while apologizing repeatedly to the crew for just wanting to get it right. It’s political gold.

The film was reportedly released at the urgings of Wall’s wife Tami, and their kids. If that’s true, then they are a family full of political and PR geniuses. Why? Because the very nature of this video is that it was never supposed to be seen, hence its unscripted authenticity is indisputable. To that end, what we observe is an authentically likeable, good natured politician whose off-camera demeanor matches up seamlessly with his on-camera profile.

You can’t buy publicity like that. You sure as hell can’t script it. It’s a special kind of magic that Wall has dazzled us with over and over again since grasping the reigns of first the Sask Party, and then the province.

Its just one more nail in the now firmly sealed coffin containing Wall’s opponents’ theory, which still occasionally, and half-heartedly, insists that behind the Premier’s public charm lies a greedy, Machiavellian monster.

In Season 1 of Mad Men, the boys of Sterling Cooper were stymied – how would they elevate a grim, dry Dick Nixon’s image above that of the dashing and personable JFK? Surely a campaign highlighting Nixon’s economic policies and experience would be enough to outweigh Kennedy’s charm. Pete Campbell knew better.

A recent New York Times article showcased how Americans are making their decisions in the Republican primaries. “Voters readily acknowledged that their decisions would be driven as much by personal chemistry and biography as by political positions and policy,” it said. “For candidates who have sometimes labored years over policy books and memoirs, stump speeches and sales pitches, campaigning for president means accepting seemingly whimsical judgments and serendipitous connections.” In other words, it’s the personality, stupid.

Premier Wall is a humble, humorous and kind person – I’ve witnessed it myself at events where he’s still tossing a football with a sick kid, having a heartfelt conversation with a fellow parent, or goofing around with the catering crew long after reporters have packed up their notebooks and recorders and gone home. From a cold, calculating, public relations perspective, the problem with moments like that is that they are impossible to package without appearing, well, packaged. Until now.

An unscripted peek behind the political curtain, revealing a leader who despite his power and popularity, is Just Like Us – voter connections don’t get much more serendipitous than that. Brad Wall’s blooper video drives home the fact that what we see is what we get. And what we have is one of the most popular Premier’s this province – and currently the country – has ever had.

- Tammy Robert’s columns appear weekly in print in the Saskatoon Express