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Public relations — often a problem, hardly a solution, but sometimes necessary

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

I took a public relations course in college (over 20 years ago) as part of the pursuit of a journalism degree.

I hated that course, because in that course, a lot of what was taught — appropriately, I might add — dealt with the practice of public relations.

The professor was honest and straightforward. He acknowledged that public relations has a mission very different from journalism. The public relations course was a necessary part of a journalism education, and I would like to think that a present-day journalism education would also require a course on public relations.

Why? The answer is not complicated: Journalism is supposed to pursue the truth of situations and the contexts attached to the truth. Wherever the truth leads, journalism is supposed to follow and provide a whole and contextual rendering of a given story or issue.

Public relations, as a profession, deals with one group or entity and its relationship to various stories and situations (and the truths contained within them). Public relations is not a practice which seeks to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth; public relations tells ONE truth, the viewpoint of a person or company immersed in a larger realm or theater of activity.

Do companies or individuals need public relations people? Sure they do. Public relations people aren’t inherently bad, lest you get that impression. They aren’t. Nevertheless, public relations and journalism do not share the same goals or orientations.

Why speak about public relations on a tennis website? Very simply, everything happening in the cluttered, chaotic, confused world of tennis governance flows from a larger situation in which the sport has a very tough time projecting a unified, coherent message to the world and the global community of tennis fans. This lack of unity in tennis governance creates a comparatively unstructured situation, a vacuum in which individual figures can’t magically step in to solve problems. There is no “commissioner of tennis,” something I wrote about here. 

Yet, while there is no commissioner — no single person who can promptly resolve important disputes or break various impasses with decisive action — prominent people in tennis DO seem to lack a basic understanding of public relations.

YES, public relations — in many ways, “spinning” — can offer the outward appearance of an intent to solve problems, yet merely mask or hide an underlying refusal to address problems.

YES, public relations can often represent benign interpretations of realities which, when studied or examined on a deeper level, are significantly harmful. These benign interpretations can often hinder progress and evolution more than aiding them.

Those two statements can be (very) true, and yet one can still see the value of public relations in tennis.

While I have very clearly asserted that single personalities and individual power brokers cannot be viewed as the whole solution or the whole problem in matters of tennis governance, I can also say that individual tennis players have to be a lot better at public relations — not so much as individuals, but as a group.

Look, we all know that Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal have different current levels of responsibility in tennis governance. None of the three should be singled out as uniquely or more responsible, especially when one realizes that their levels of responsibility have changed over time. It would be irresponsible to say that Djokovic — he himself! — is more responsible for any problem in tennis than anyone else on the ATP Tour. It would be similarly irresponsible to single out Federer or Nadal along those same lines.

Moreover, we can all use critical thinking to arrive at the logical conclusion that all three men are exercising backroom influence to steer this situation to a better outcome. It would be naive to think the Big 3 *aren’t* wielding back-channel leverage to varying degrees.

Yet, while processes do take time, and while back-channel influence certainly matters, and while individual tennis players can’t be viewed as uniquely responsible for various problems in the sport, one can STILL say the following:

Tennis players, as solo athletes, can — and do — very easily lose sight of the fact that they play a global sport with a worldwide fan base. Though they shouldn’t be expected to immediately solve problems, and even though a public statement would hardly represent a true and real solution to various problems as they arise, it does still matter to fans that players hear the concerns of fans, especially if players do want to be more empowered in various decisions on tennis governance at multiple levels of activity and jurisdiction.

Consider this question: If tennis players were to hypothetically boycott a major tournament over a dispute over pay or court assignments, how would fans respond?

As you think about that question, wouldn’t it stand to reason that fans would more likely support the players in a boycott if they trusted the players on a more consistent basis?

Does it not therefore occur to players that being more proactive in the realm of public relations would help their cause down the line?

I don’t think players — as a group — understand this.

So, while any one player should not have all the problems of a sport laid at his feet, I would also say that players — in groups — could have and should have made more joint statements to clearly get ahead of various issues. By dragging their feet in terms of public statements, they have lost a measure of trust which they now need to win back.

Public relations can be used to aid the forces of evil, it is true. Think of Saudi Arabia and its slick public-relations blitz, which led CBS’s 60 Minutes to basically do a puff piece on Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, months before the Jamal Khashoggi killing and other related violent acts. Public relations can leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

However, public relations — like so much else in this world — can be a positive and helpful thing if done for the right reasons and with the right intent.

Tennis players, very simply, need to be better at global public relations. They aren’t part of a team sport, but tennis players ARE part of a very large and diverse community. They can’t solve problems alone as isolated individuals, but they should be better at speaking out in a group context.

Maybe the 2020s will be a decade marked by improvement on this front.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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