Sport: A guide to being `nice' and avoiding `zzzz' words

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The Independent Online
POSTERS FOR the new film, Velvet Goldmine, are proclaiming an intriguing message on the walls and subways of our cities: "The secret to being a star is knowing how to behave like one."

The context is rock music; but it might just as well be sport. For those men and women emerging into the media glare that now surrounds all high sporting achievers, behaving like a star is becoming an increasingly important element of their career. The proliferation of demands from radio, television, newspapers and magazines is potentially bewildering for young people whose talent is for kicking a ball or running very fast, rather than promoting their own image.

Yesterday The Independent carried a report of a seminar at which 12 highly promising footballers were invited to learn the new facts of media-relating life from two high-achieving sportsmen now earning their living in broadcasting, the former footballer Alan Hansen and the double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson.

If, 10 years ago, you had suggested to any of Her Majesty's Press that Thompson - the man who told the occasional kid where to go with their autograph book - would be advising up-and-coming talents on how to deal with the media, the reaction would have been one of, shall we say, incredulity.

But Thompson, and that other rude young man of old, Steve Ovett, have since been gathered to broadcasting's bosom and obliged to demonstrate "niceness" for years on end. If the strain is telling, they are managing to hide it.

The creeping Americanisation of British sport, in terms of ubiquitous coverage and potential for high-earning, means that niceness is at a higher premium than ever before. The footballers' teach-in is one of many such initiatives now gathering momentum. The British Olympic Association is currently canvassing opinions and interviews with assorted media persons in preparation for what they hope will be the first of a series of competitors' get-togethers next month at which all the things they don't tell you on the training ground - like how to get on with the press, how to do tax returns - will be aired.

Having added my own two penn'orth to the proceedings, it occurred to me that I might have been less than candid in certain areas. So here is a shortlist of do's and don'ts for guaranteed satisfaction in media relations.

DON'T ever feel the need to express the wish that the race, or the final, or the next match, will be a great contest which will hopefully offer the crowd value for money. Everybody hopes that.

DON'T conduct interviews with an expression which suggests that, in an ideal world, you would like to stride from the arena and return with an anti-personnel grenade to put an end to the torment of questioning. Thinking about this is OK.

DO remember that in most conversations about sporting injury, a modicum of detail is more than sufficient. Knee injury - fine. Calf strain - no problem. Referred back pain via tilted pelvic girdle, exacerbated by possible bursitis and a misalignment of the kneecap - please, keep all this between yourself and your physiotherapist.

DON'T, if you can help it at all, use the word "focused". It is the opposite of a buzz word - it's a "zzzz" word. Carl Lewis holds the unofficial world record for mentioning the word we are not going to mention again in a single press interview: 27. Prodigious in everything, old Carl.

If, say, you become an England footballer, and you find yourself confronted by a horde of scribes as you emerge from the Wembley dressing-room, DON'T hug the opposite wall and scrape past as if you fear contracting rabies.

If - re-running that emerging from the dressing-room scenario - you are the reserve goalkeeper, DO feel free to scrape past rather than tarting all the way down the row of cameras and notebooks and preventing those present from interviewing anyone interesting.

DON'T use the phrase "you guys" when talking to the media. It's not big, and it's not clever.

Finally, remember this. The media will not always beat you with the stick. Sometimes they will beat you with the carrot too.