The Michael Sam Announcement: A Winning PR Strategy
Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of the University Missouri. As a Mizzou Tiger, the outpouring of support my alma mater received following the February 9 announcement by football player Michael Sam that he is gay is gratifying and exciting. But for a moment, I’ll strip away my own personal bias and the social impact of the announcement, and take a closer look at how this was an example of a nearly flawless PR strategy.
The fact that Sam is gay was no secret, per se. He came out to his teammates last August and never shied away from private questions about his sexuality. However, he never offered an official “coming out” statement. Sam’s orientation was beginning to move past the relatively small circle who knew. According to reports, Michael Sam’s agent began receiving inquiries from NFL scouts in January about Sam’s dating history. Clearly, the net of knowledge regarding his orientation was cast more widely than anticipated.
Despite being named the Southeast Conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year and earning a unanimous All-American honor this past season, it could be argued that such a revelation would negatively impact his status in the upcoming NFL draft, where most experts project him to be a 3rd-5th round pick. Sam was forced to make a crucial decision: Ignore the growing chatter about his sexuality and let someone else break the story or get ahead of the news and own the narrative. He and his representation chose the latter.
While the announcement was a risk, the rising acceptance of same-sex marriage in the U.S. was likely a comforting indicator that Sam’s sexuality revelation would be better received than it would have been just a few years ago. A September 2013 study by Pew Research, for example, found that 52 percent of Americans are now in favor of gay marriage.
Despite the growing favorable sentiment, it was up to Sam and his representatives to ensure that the narrative was clear and well-positioned. Sam’s talking points:
- I am gay, and comfortable with it
- My teammates and coaches have known about it, and they are comfortable with it
- Being gay has nothing to do with my ability to play football
Sam’s team secured interviews with the New York Times and ESPN, and the story broke on Sunday, February 9—one week after the Super Bowl. It didn’t hurt that many of Sam’s teammates, the University of Missouri, coaches and NFL players took to social media immediately, congratulating him on making the announcement and offering their support. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Michelle Obama posted approving tweets as well. By the time anyone who cared to offer a dissenting public opinion could do so, a groundswell of support for Sam was in place.
Sam wasn’t the only beneficiary of the announcement. The University of Missouri earned the kind of PR you simply cannot buy. Through midweek, the university and football program was featured in an almost endless cycle of positive coverage on sports networks, national publications and pop culture sites.
By owning the story, Michael Sam’s representation controlled the message, shaped the coverage and likely swayed some of the potential dissenters. Had they done nothing or waited until after the draft to make the announcement, favorably steering the conversation would have been overwhelmingly more difficult, if not impossible. And let’s not forget the unexpected media attention that would have been heaped on the team that drafts him. Now, any team that drafts him will, on some level, be OK with his sexuality and direct their PR pros to ride the coattails of an already positively-received story.
From start to finish, Michael Sam’s PR strategy managed a ground-breaking and potentially controversial announcement that could have gone very wrong if mishandled. Instead, Sam’s message has been well-received and he can move forward without the fear of having to unexpectedly defend himself.
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- The Michael Sam Announcement: A Winning PR Strategy – February 24, 2014