Vikings’ Jerry Burns Reminds Us How Badly PR Has F-ed Up News Viewing

The field of public relations has sucked nearly all the emotion, candor, color and sincerity out of news programming.

I haven’t done formal research on this, but my sense is that all of this started in the political world.  After the political handlers got done “training” their bosses and clients, the politicans became rhetorical robots.  As a result, they are now less likely to say anything politically perilous, but they are also unlikely to say anything remotely thought-provoking or candid.

The Sunday news shows are living proof.   Virtually no intelligent life can be found there.  It’s not because the guests aren’t intelligent.  It’s because the guests have all been trained.

About the same time, the burgeoning class of media trainers started to suck out what little color and candor ever existed in the world of corporate communications.  PR pros taught their bosses and clients to stay emotionally flat, avoid unflattering questions, and stay “on message” at all costs.  That is sound advice for the client, to a point, but it is absolutely lethal for audiences hoping to learn anything about a businessperson’s actual personality, insights, or intentions.

Increasingly, this rhetorical neutering reached, sigh, the sports world.  Listen to current Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, in all his emotionally flat, cliché-ridden blandness.  “One game at a time,” “everyone do their jobs,” “you take what they give you,” “stick with our game plan.”  Blah, blah, blahtedy blah.  Like white noise, Frazier interviews numb the ear drum.

The ever-programmed Coach Frazier will never begin to hold a player publicly accountable.  For instance, when wide receiver Percy Harvin recently spent a week acting like a spoiled brat, Coach Frazier, who had to be absolutely livid, instead looked like he had been lobotomized.  I can assure you, he had been, by media trainers.

As a result of all this training, I am no more likely to watch an interview of the Vikings’ verbal Vulcan than I am to watch an interview of Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Harry Reid, or Nancy Pelosi.  I have learned from experience that none of them will ever say anything remotely genuine or unscripted.  After all, they have been trained.

If you doubt me about how bad sports interviews have become from a spectators’ standpoint, treat yourself to a walk down memory lane with former Vikings Coach Jerry Burns.

Warning:  Do not watch this with the volume up within earshot of  the kiddies, clergy or your mother:

And mind you, this was a game the Vikings won.

Put that Burns interview alongside a contemporary Leslie Frazier interview, and you will see why the NFL is now rightfully called the “No Fun League.”  Burnsy wasn’t afraid to let his real emotions out, provide somewhat frank analysis and bring his cartoon character personality to the screen.  Burns was employed in the entertainment business, and he entertained unabashedly.

If the Vikings hired me to media train Jerry Burns, I supposed I’d feel obligated to put him through Charm School.  And you know what?  F*#k me for doing it.

– Loveland

Programming note:  Thanks to a West Coast Rowdy reader for passing along the vintage video.

11 thoughts on “Vikings’ Jerry Burns Reminds Us How Badly PR Has F-ed Up News Viewing

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Absolute CLASSIC!! And hopefully we will never hear again from Gardenhire that the “ball was coming out of Blackburn’s hand pretty good. He just got it up a little.” But seriously, in the public arena and the revolution in communications anything uttered these days is easily twisted and used against the speaker regardless of political orientation, and under online attack instantaneously. No wonder these interviews are sleep inducing.

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Yes, Love Ozzie! But look how fast he nearly got thrown out of Miami–for spontaneously “not thinking” and it was all over the globe before he turned around. Very happy he survived it. (The team sucks.)

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Don’t forget “pitch to contact” and “battlin’ his tail off.”

      Gardy tries to disguise his emotions, but he isn’t great at it. He always looks on the verge of blowing up. It’s bound to happen one of these days.

  2. One of the reasons Chris Christie is about to give the keynote speech at the Republican Convention is that he sounds like more than a bobblehead. He says stuff that’s off script, stuff that’s ill-considered ill-tempered and just nasty. And he’s governor. And he’s popular. Because he’s not Wonder Bread.

    Read Joe’s and Brian’s latest posts together — they add up to a perfect indictment of canned speech. I can’t stand to listen to Republicans spewing speaking points, and Repubs can’t stand to listen to Dems doing the same. So the only people listening are those already in the choir.

    Joe, I think it’s a bad media trainer who teaches people to recite talking points or key messages. That’s lazy and ineffective PR. And it’s too old school. It was Al Fleishman, co-founder of Fleishman Hillard, who purportedly said “There are no Qs, only As,” meaning ignore the question and answer with what you want to say. That’s crap.

    I try to get my clients to make a point, illustrate it briefly with evidence and give an example. And talk like a human. I’m going to work harder at that after reading my brethren’s pieces here.

    The Sununu clip is horrifying. Chris Matthews did the same with Reince Priebus Sunday morning — a yelling match. When both sides, and the journalists in between, are yelling talking points, all we can do is turn off the TV or stick our iPhones back in our pockets.

    With everybody citing stats that are beyond any viewer’s ability or desire to check up on, all we can do is make judgments about people based on HOW they speak and carry themselves, not what they say. That’s how we mostly assess people anyway — on their voice, face, gestures, eyes, not their words. Does this person believe what he’s saying? Is she credible? Does he care? Does she know what she’s talking about? That’s what people make decisions on.

    So if people can skip the talking points and skip the fake data and make a human point about human life, others may actually listen to them. That’s what I aim for with the victims of my training — and Brian’s and Joe’s pieces make me more committed than ever to that.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      I know you do great work, Bruce. And I’m not as bad as some. But candidly, wouldn’t you at a minimum recommend to Jerry to stop swearing so much and tone down the anger. I sure would, and if I didn’t the client would probably fire me. And once I’m successful doing that, and the General Manager yells at Jerry to lay off the star player because of pending contract negotiations, and to stop discussing the playbook for the other teams to hear, well you pretty quickly have yourself a Leslie Frazier at the podium.

      On the political point, I agree with you about Christie’s rawness being his appeal. But I bet he flames out fairly soon. Jesse Ventura and Bill Janklow in my home state of South Dakota had a similar deal going. Pretty rare in politics. But those guys have adoring bases, but limited ceilings, because over time the bully boy with paper thin skin act loses its novelty with the swing voters.

      We media trainers are right to do what we can to maximize our clients’ odds of getting their primary points across (which often means eliminating tiny little distractions like saying the f word four times per sentence). That’s what we’re hired to do. But my self-loathing point is simply that the phenomenon of media training overall has made news programming pretty unwatchable, and I feel a little guilty about my small contribution to that development.

      1. Yes, too much juice, too much anger, doesn’t come off well. Chris Matthews hit that point with Reince Priebus (but oh god what a little snot that guy is — sorry, did I say that out loud?). Jesse was unbearable by the end.

        You can be sharp but not angry. Tom Brokaw last night remembered Molly Ivins’ comment on Pat Buchanan’s inflammatory convention speech in 1996: “It sounded better in the original German,” she said.

        If you can be clever AND wicked, clever and pointed, then you’re quotable and credible, methinks. Also you need to be smart, heartfelt, genuinely warm…

        I guess you need to be a good human being, thoughtful but natural. Bill Clinton is that, often, and he got to be president.

        You made me wince, in a good way, on media training. In my presentation training I’ve gone almost completely over to the “Being Human” side of things, not “Being an Expert.” I need to go that far in media training too. People don’t relate to automatons.

        Even Willard Mitt Romney, for all his woodenness, has a smile on his face and seems to be happy to be in the race. He has some sort of charm, which i don’t see or understand, but he has people who will be hurt by his policies following him around like puppies.

        Obama lately has been so fricking serious. If all you do is watch TV with the sound down — you might rather spend four years with a guy who smiles than a guy who seems to be lecturing.

      2. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Joe, your piece put me in mind of this bit of dialogue from the end of “Apocalypse Now”:

        “KURTZ (dictates to tape)
        “They train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders
        won’t allow them to write fuck on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

        And then, of course, there is Kurtz’s recitation of T.S. Eliot’s, “The Hollow Men.”

      3. Joe Loveland says:

        Media Trainers are sort of like NASCAR safety experts. They try to reduce the risk of crashes. But if you’re a NASCAR fan prone to schadenfreude, a guilty party of you likes a good crash.

        Likewise, if you’re a news junky prone to schadenfreude, a guilty part of you loves a good news media crash, such as the Jerry Burns meltdown.

        So just as the NASCAR safety expert has a down side for the crash-loving NASCAR fan, the Media Trainer has a downside for the crash-loving news junky.

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