Book Can’t Tarnish the Enduring Brand of “Sweetness”

As I learned of the details of Jeff Pearlman’s new biography on Walter Payton, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” I admit my reaction was the way many Bears fans would react: I wanted to find Jeff Pearlman in a bar and ask him to step outside. But after I cooled down a little, I realized that, regardless of what Pearlman has written about Payton in the way of his painkiller use, extramarital affairs and depression, his book is as useless for touching the brand of Walter Payton as a New England Patriot in Super Bowl XX.

This is not the voice of a pure fan talking, believe it or not. It’s the voice of reason based on what I know about how iconic sports brands endure above those that shockingly fail us. Particularly those born and bred here in Chicago.

First, let’s play Devil’s Advocate and assume for the sake of argument that every word Pearlman has written about Walter Payton is true. In fact, many fans and friends who witnessed his behavior off the field after he retired wouldn’t disagree or be shocked by some of the allegations. Pearlman interviewed 678 people for the book and I’m sure there were consistencies. So I’m not even going to naively dispute any of that.

Just like I’m not going to dispute that there is a foundation in Payton’s name that has catapulted organ donation sign-ups in Illinois and elsewhere – the same foundation that donates toys to underprivileged children in the Chicagoland area. Or there is a High School named in his honor. Or there is a section of the UIC Medical Center called the Walter Payton Liver Center.

See, where Pearlman did get it wrong was when he said the book was “definitive.” Perhaps in the eyes of a Sports Illustrated columnist who followed the trail of interviews to build a story. I certainly don’t believe Jeff Pearlman is an inherently bad person or that he intends to demonize Walter Payton. But his book will not define the brand of Walter Payton in the eyes of Chicagoans. Not one word. Why?

It’s not like we didn’t know our most iconic sports brands have had their personal faults. We know it and we love them anyway.

Michael Jordan had a failed marriage, gambles huge sums of money and gave a Basketball Hall of Fame speech that was more “F*%$ You” than gracious. Some might even quibble with the fact he smokes cigars as he signs autographs for kids. But we love him anyway.

Mike Ditka has a medical chart like a train wreck, a DWI conviction, tossed a wad of gum at an opposing fan and flipped photographers the bird. Not to mention he is also ’til this day the worst 7th inning stretch singer of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” But we love him anyway.

Phil Jackson. Ryne Sandberg. Mark Grace. Bobby Hull. Mistakes off the court/playing field/ice? They’ve made a few. We love them anyway.

We have been lucky to watch the special talents of these icons, but they have been lucky to have a relationship with a town as forgiving as Chicago. I am not entirely sure other cities with bright lights always have such warm hearts. When you do well by us on the field, we tend to understand your humanity off of it. It doesn’t mean we agree with it or excuse it. It means we know great players and coaches can make human errors because they are human beings.

Let me take another angle away from the field of sport. As any iconic brand realizes, when you build up a long legacy of delivering a superior product or service that people appreciate year after year, decade after decade, it is easier to maintain loyalty through the eye of a storm. It’s the difference between a bump in the road and a full-on catastrophe. Why? Because many of those people who invest in your brand look at the “big picture” of what you’ve delivered on up to this point and understand that people in business can relate to. I’m also not talking about a scandal on the level of Enron, but minor things like a foreign object falling into a Big Mac that shouldn’t have.

To be sure, the allegations of the book on Payton are anything but minor. Yet the faults of him and other icons in this town have been the same demons many people grapple with at one time or another: Staying faithful to your spouse. Gambling. Drinking too much. Painkillers for old injuries. Failed business ventures. Depression.

Tell me you or someone you love hasn’t had to face at least one of these challenges. We all have. And thankfully, nobody is writing a tell-all book on us.

Even if they tried, we’d say that author of the tell-all didn’t define us. Because even if we aren’t performing in front of thousands of people any given Sunday, we are all striving for a personal brand that is defined so much more by our positives than our shortcomings.

I know the brand of Walter Payton will enjoy that positive definition too.

Every social media cocktail needs a beer chaser.

By now you’ve probably been bombarded with enough posts elsewhere on Google Plus, so you’ll be glad to know this isn’t one more of them. Because what I’m writing about has wider implications than just one tool. It has to do where your entire brand lives in the social media realm.

I’ve come to the conclusion that clearly in terms of social media we should all be on TumblrGoogTwitBookTube.

Sorry for the confusion, but I think others with their behaviors and proclamations of late are just as confusing.

I’ve had it with those who feel another social media tool has to die so that another may live. Maybe it’s the rush to be proclaimed as a prophet of some sort, but it’s bogus. Actually, to be more accurate, it’s dangerous brand strategy and it risks burning the relationships you’ve cultivated.

I really have to marvel at people who are writing about how they are leaving their current outposts because something else has come along that’s far superior.

“We were on Facebook but we’re moving everything to Tumblr.”
“We were on WordPress but we’re going over to GooglePlus. Follow us there!”

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

They’re missing the point of how their own fans and followers use social media, which is to say that we almost never put all our energy toward one channel.

We have a hub and then, many times, we have at least a secondary channel. The most common example I’ve witnessed of this is Facebook for personal relationships, LinkedIn for business relationships. Or LinkedIn/Facebook as primary hub, Twitter as a 2nd, lesser visited destination.

It’s kind of like a favorite of restaurant of mine that serves a Bloody Mary with a beer chaser of Miller Lite during Sunday brunch – every good primary hub deserves a secondary accompaniment. Much like the primary and secondary ways we consume social media. Or “Hubs” and “Outposts.”

It’s downright rare for us to spend 100% of our time in one place and that’s more than OK. Yet, every single time a new tool comes along like Google Plus, it has to be the Killer of something else. It was the Facebook Killer, the Twitter Killer and the LinkedIn Killer.

Nope. I’m not buying it.

Why can’t we research, experiment and explore? I spend the majority of my time on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Not only because it’s what I’m comfortable with at the moment but more importantly, it’s where the people I have relationships with and potential clients are spending their time online. With Google Plus being new, I’ve done my due diligence to check it out because like many other people, I was curious. If enough of my audience is there – and stays there – I’ll deepen my commitment (I wouldn’t get hung up on the 10 million people who signed up for it until we see the staying power months from now).

I remember a much simpler time when we only debated in absolutes between “digital” media and “traditional” media. 

Which was seriously only a couple years ago.

Now, just as social media is gaining credibility in the boardroom as a viable option for marketing budgets – yes, I believe we’re moving past that point – we’re going to complicate matters and confuse them by saying, “No, don’t go here anymore, you want to put all your energy over here.”

“But I thought you said Facebook was equivalent to the 3rd or 4th largest country in the world.”

“Yeah, I did, but it’s on its way out. You want to be on Tumblr. You can do so much more with it.”

“But our audience is in their 40’s. Isn’t that a tool more popular with Gen Y right now?”

“It’s OK. They’ll come around to it.”

Sure. But they’re not all there right now. So it’s more sensible to dip my toes in that water before jumping in with reckless abandon.

This may sound like you shouldn’t be flexible, but I’m actually championing for greater mobility.

Far before this thing called the Internet and social media came along, advertising agencies who had intelligent planners knew that their audience probably watched TV, listened to the radio and read certain magazines. They didn’t tell companies to put 100% of their marketing budgets in one medium.

We shouldn’t be telling people that now.

What I’m hearing is the equivalent of someone not only telling a marketer to put all their money in TV, but all their money in one channel like ABC. That doesn’t sound like good advice, right?

Well, telling a brand to go “all in” on one social media channel is probably along the same lines of competence.

We should be telling people to diversify and plan based on what we have gathered about the way their audience has, is and will behave. If social media is a component of their brand strategy – which it is – we should be treating it as such by diversifying our percentages of time spent on various channels rather than flipping off the light switch while people are still in the room talking.

I’m not suggesting that you should spend time on a dying channel or a channel that’s not reflective of your audience. That would be silly. What I am suggesting is that you should add social media channels rather than burn bridges. We can still be pioneers and sherpas of social media while being true to how our brand’s followers are living today. Then, if and when it appears that either the channel is on its way down for the count or that your audience is steadily trickling away from that channel, you make a move to change your commitment to it. From “primary” to “secondary” to “non-existent” if you have to.

So it’s OK to suggest when appropriate that we should take a hard look at spending time on a new channel because that’s where we believe based on research and conversations that this is where our audience will be headed. We’d be doing a disservice not to communicate this.

It’s just that when you build up a following on any medium, it’s something that’s not only taken time on your part but is a serious investment made on the people who have chosen to follow you that should never be taken for granted.

Sometimes I wonder if brands and gurus remember that before they torch the old place.

Your Comment turned into an E-book and now it’s a full-on Buzzkill

Hanging out in enough discussion forums, from LinkedIn to the AdAge Small Agency Diary blog/forum, I enjoy the generally good discourse that takes place between people. Opposing views can be great for the conversation. But what I can’t stand is when someone takes over the discussion with what can be only described as the equivalent of a filibuster.

I’m talking about the dreaded Comment From Hell.

You know what I’m talking about. The CFH is not a few paragraphs. It’s a 10-paragraph-or-more “look at how intelligent I am compared to everyone else here” comment. And it’s like tossing a grenade into the room. I’m exhausted trying to read the point, whether it’s good or not. Recently in LinkedIn, I had to power my way through a guy’s lengthy diatribe over why he wasn’t convinced on the power of social media. He didn’t think he’d seen enough proof that it worked.

Great. I respect your viewpoint. I don’t agree with it, but I respect it. But when your Comment is that long, there are a few things you should ask yourself.

1) Is this my blog? My website? My Facebook page?
No. You’re a welcome invited guest into a conversation with others. You’re in someone else’s “house.” If you want to deliver a speech, go deliver one. Elsewhere. If you want to have a conversation, have one that doesn’t consist to grandstanding and shameless self-promotion. Show you care about what other people have to say other than the voice in your own head.

2) Is there another place I could be posting this opinion?
Yes. Your blog, your website, your Facebook page. Just for starters. Even there, you should be inviting commentary back. Which I do here, by the way. Nobody is telling you not to share your thoughts. But could you apply that energy to a place where it is better suited?

3)  Is it taking me longer than 4-5 minutes to make my point in the Comment area?
That’s right. Time yourself. How long is it taking you to get the words out? I can recall writing an radio spot for my boss with entirely too much copy – no wonder his response back to me was, “This screenplay sounds great, but what I’d really like is a 30 second spot.” You can write something impactful and compelling in fewer words. I guarantee it.

4) Do people have to scroll down very far to read my comment?
Let me be very clear. When I see an ocean of words associated with one person compared to everyone else who can generally make comments in 2-3 paragraphs or less, my first thought is: Angry? Frustrated? Egomaniac? Not interested in having a real conversation in a place where conversations are supposed to occur?

Of course, maybe this isn’t you at all. But think about the impression and effect you have on the rest of the discussion.

So what to do to be a Conversationalist and not a Buzzkill via a comment manifesto?

Simple. Imagine yourself at a party where you join an ongoing conversation. Are you going to listen first? Hopefully. Are you going to enjoy the conversation more if there’s a bunch of give-and-take? Probably.

Or are you going to just butt in, interrupt everyone and start talking about what happened to you today on the way to work, regardless of whatever else the rest of the group was talking about before you got there?

Unless it was a laugh-riot, they’re probably going to look at you funny with an expression that says, “Who invited this guy?”

Embrace the dialogue in these groups and the genuine opportunity to build relationships by self-editing. If you want to promote the heck out of yourself that badly, provide a link at the end and if you’re at all interesting, we’ll go there. If you’ve bored us to tears, we won’t.

I see I’m approaching a word count that would be totally unsuitable for a Comment Area. But not bad for a Blog. So I’ll wrap it up here.

Comments welcome. Seriously.

Calling Out Athletes Who Tweet Irresponsibly

“If he was on my team, I’d be looking at him sideways.”
– Asante Samuel

“All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee…I played the whole season on one.”
-Maurice Jones-Drew

“Hey, there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart.”
-Derrick Brooks

“If I’m on Chicago, Jay Cutler has to wait ’til me and the team shower, get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!”
–Darnell Dockett

Pretty damning stuff from players around the NFL about Jay Cutler after Sunday’s loss. But now I’m calling out players who think they can just tweet and run. I’m sure this will be taken as bitterness from a Bear fan, but this issue didn’t start on Sunday and it won’t end there either. Tweets against other teams and other players can be harmless “trash talk,” but these tweets were not harmless. They were over the line and misinformed. Even before the full extent of Cutler’s injury was known or that doctors had advised him not to return to the field of play, his peers in the NFL were taking shots at him via Twitter.

Which begs the question: When do agents and teams step in to allow a balance of what is and isn’t fair game?

We know this much – if a tweet was about giving away team secrets, such as plays or observations from practice, the athlete in question would be in trouble through an immediate fine. Beyond that, however, there’s a gray area that needs to be better defined. So let’s do that.

Athletes should be allowed to tweet.
It’s a beautiful thing when athletes and celebrities become that much closer and down to Earth to the rest of us through social media tools. For all the flack Twitter gets as a social media tool compared to Facebook, we’re paying plenty of attention to it. We’re listening to Lebron, Shaq and others who are firing off tweets without giving it a second thought. People in the city of Chicago are talking as much about the aftermath of a game as the game itself because of Twitter.

I don’t blame Twitter, I blame the tweeter.

Limiting athlete usage of Twitter won’t solve anything. Just as I say regarding policies in the corporate world on this subject, you can’t ban social media completely. But you can put guidelines in place to be followed so that while your employees should feel free to use social media, they shouldn’t be allowed to embarrass those they represent without consequence. By the same token, athletes need to remember who they represent. They are employees of companies and endorsers of products. Maurice Jones-Drew is an employee of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did not represent his employer particularly well upon firing off his tweet. But Twitter was not the problem. We know Twitter can be used just as powerfully for good causes. Instead, would it have killed any of these experts like Maurice Jones-Drew to turn to a person near him and say, “I’m going to rip Jay Cutler on Twitter. Do you think I should do it?” I doubt an agent or a coach would approve, so why did you do it, Maurice?

And now guess what? The next time the Bears see some of these tweeters, don’t be surprised if they put a little something extra on those tackles and blocks. Is it that different than the pitcher in baseball who throws a 95mph fastball suspiciously close to a batter and then the opposing team’s pitcher does the same in retaliation? Is it that different than the basketball player who performs a flagrant foul on another player going for a breakaway dunk?

It’s only different because it didn’t occur on the field of play. And that’s what makes it almost worse. The Bears are angry at themselves but they have a right to be angry at those who disrespected their Quarterback while sitting at home or in a studio. It appears semi-calculated, not in the moment. It was spiteful and jealous from players who were sitting at home, not something that developed on the field between opponents who are otherwise friends off the field.

Guidelines, guidelines, guidelines.

Just as we see in the business world among corporations that allow their people to use social media responsibly by outlining do’s and don’t of using it – and I applaud those who take this more realistic approach to guiding without eliminating – teams have to provide their players with guidelines for using social media tools. It’s not as bad as it sounds. If they can follow a playbook, they can follow rules on how to use social media in the right way. Keep the guidelines sensible instead of restrictive so that the players can have a certain degree of freedom. But in the same breath, establish what constitutes a violation, such as openly questioning the manhood of another player to the world.

I’m not asking them to stop tweeting or posting. I’m asking them to have common sense when they do. To treat the people who worked hard to get their same level with an equal amount of respect. Otherwise, I’m worried what starts as a comment taken the wrong way in the online world is going to turn into a consequence that hardly resembles professional sport in the offline world.