When to engage with audiences, via the NRL

|| April 4, 2014

How often should athletes, executives or thought leaders engage with audiences? The question has been debated in recent weeks as mainstream media complains of a lack of access to National Rugby League players. League legends Darren Lockyer and Mal Meninga have written excellent columns on the topic, highlighting the importance of mainstream media interaction despite the booming reach of social media.

Greater access to opinion shapers makes life easier for journalists. I recall covering Australian cricket tours overseas and regularly dialing room-to-room in hotels or even knocking on players’ doors down the corridor to get some insights. It would sometimes end with an interview conducted in a player’s room as they chewed through a room-service club sandwich. It wasn’t such a big deal then but today’s sportswriters would be lucky to get such access in this era of much tighter media control.

Should the NRL, AFL and Australian Rugby Union push their players in front of the media more often? The US experience suggests they should. In Major League Baseball, every club plays 162 games each regular season. And, after all 162, the locker room is opened to media. The same doesn’t happen in Australia’s major sports, where the default offering is a coach and one senior player after games. The smart clubs are far more compliant and proactive with media requests to their obvious benefit. The Queensland Reds now livestream interviews with players and coaches in the hour before matches. 

It’s easy to say that sporting clubs or corporates should want to push their key people out more. But one difference must first be addressed – Australia remains a country in which engagement with audiences is largely feared. In the US, there is a much better acceptance of audience engagement – it’s a part of life, it’s not to be feared and it can often be beneficial.

There are already plenty of stories about people or organisations embracing audience engagement and reaping the rewards. They have good stories to tell and they’re keen to share them. They know that sometimes they will have to talk about bad news but they have the confidence to realise that audiences are smart, hungry for information and keen to engage. NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst last week said he would hold more regular media briefings to counter the perception that judges are out of touch with the community. In some ways, that’s a no-brainer but it’s encouraging to see such a highly ranked legal mind make the move.

Until the fear of audience engagement wanes in Australia, the debate about how many footy players should speak with journalists is a secondary argument. 

- Michael Crutcher