Ask a group of Giants fans why the team from East Rutherford had a successful season that culminated in a Super Bowl vistory and you probably will hear a myriad of responses.
Eli Manning’s maturity at quarterback, Plaxico Buress’ athleticism, Brandon Jacobs’ brute strength and the emergence of Ahmad Bradshaw all are likely to be at the top of the lists.
One answer that you probably will not hear is public relations.
True, it was Mannings’ touchdown pass to Buress that sent the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII, but the path may very well have been cleared last summer with Coach Tom Coughlin’s attention to public relations and the image the he and the team have with the public and the press.
In his first three seasons as Giants’ head coach, Coughlin came across as a stern disciplinarian with a short-fuse. Images of him exploding into tirades on the sidelines became familiar scenes. His coaching style and decisions were openly challenged by his players and subjected to daily scrutiny by the media. He was abrupt with the press, sometimes confrontational.
On the field, his team struggled through highs and lows, making it to the post-season in 2005 and 2006, only to lose in the opening round each year. Many thought his job was in jeopardy after last year’s playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but instead he received a one-year contract extension.
Given another chance at the helm, Coughlin decided to re-invent himself, as detailed in a September 2 New York Times story.
“Coughlin smiled more than scowled at training camp,” Times reporter John Branch wrote. “He laughed more than barked. Practices ended early. The first half of two-a-days in Albany often consisted of a sweatless walk-through without pads. Daily news conferences, often devoid of news, were also devoid of Coughlin ‘s familiar snipes at inane or repetitive questions. He canceled a football meeting for bowling, for crying out loud.”
Coughlin also spent time meeting individually with the beat reporters who cover the team to ask what he could he do differently and how he could make their jobs easier.
His actions were designed to change his public image. Like politicians whose frontstage (public) personalities differ from their backstage (private) lives, Tom Coughlin, the NFL head coach, was not the same man that his family and friends knew.
“For years, Coughlin ‘s wife and children have been telling him that they do not recognize the man on the sideline exploding in fury, and that they do not understand how one seemingly innocuous question at a news conference can rile him into a rant that ends up on nightly newscasts,” Branch wrote.
But the benefits of Coughlin’s image makeover may extend beyond PR. By taking steps to end distractions, he was able to focus more attention on doing job and doing it better.
“It’s about trying to succeed in this business,” he told the Times. “And if I’m putting my team and my organization in a better position to achieve and to win and to be looked at in a more positive way, then so be it.”
How much of a factor Coughlin’s kinder, gentler personality played in the Giants’ run to the Super Bowl is debatable. But there is a lesson here, and it is a lesson that also may be applicable to leaders in government.
The relationship between government and the media is becoming increasingly adversarial today. On one hand, a press corps that is aggressive and suspicious of government is a healthy thing for democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
But today the press has become an easy target, a scapegoat for those who do not fully understand the role the media plays.
Tom Coughlin didn’t need to take the time he did to learn about the media and the impact of his public image. But he did. And he’s had a successful year, regardless of what happens in Sunday’s game.
And if improving relationships with the media and paying more attention to public images helped the Giants win the Super Bowl, who knows what could happen if government leaders start following suit?
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