Telling your story: Media relations for golf course superintendents
Plan and practice to successfully spread the golf course superintendent profession’s message and value to the masses.
John C. Fech
Media interviews can take valuable time out of a superintendent’s busy day, but representing yourself, your facility and your industry in such settings can pay big dividends. Photo by Scott Hollister
Is it better to be proactive or reactive? To use positive messaging, neutral messaging or no messaging at all? To be in control or to have someone or something controlling you? The answers to these questions are subjective in most cases. From an organizational standpoint, however, golf industry groups such as GCSAA, the American Society of Golf Course Architects and the USGA have taken a decidedly proactive, positive approach to messaging around important themes, including pollinator health, water conservation, responsible pesticide use, and environmental stewardship in general. These groups are doing a great job of promoting the virtues of the game of golf, the golf industry, and the industry’s coordinated efforts to protect the environment.
But is that enough? Should golf course superintendents focus only on the course, let the organizational leaders do their thing, and let the chips fall where they may? Perhaps in the “good old days,” that would have been a reasonable approach, but not today — not with the extreme political and environmental scrutiny that’s regularly directed at the golf industry.
The 3 facets of effective media outreach
To successfully stem the tide of restrictive legislative action and negative public opinion, telling the story of how golf positively impacts the environment, human fitness and the economy is important on both the local and global level. Your local efforts can be broken down into three components.
The elevator speech. Being able to simply and succinctly tell someone you just met about what you do for a living is an excellent way to get the word out that there are people in town who truly value community resources and whose job it is to ensure they are properly cared for. Perhaps a helpful way to consider the value of telling your story is within the context of your church or your child’s school. Out of the 300 parishioners or parents, how many of them are superintendents? Probably none, which means the other 299 likely don’t know any superintendents — and it would be great if they did.
Engagement of media professionals. A superintendent’s story is a terrific one to tell, full of both intricacies and everyday, relatable experiences that are of immediate transferrable value to a newspaper’s readers, a TV network’s viewers or a radio station’s listeners. These entities are hungry to remain relevant in today’s ever-changing communication industry, and you capitalize on that by reaching out to them.
The interview. After you’ve landed an interview, consider how to make it go the direction you want. As with many other enterprises, planning and practice are essential. (See “Media interview do’s and don’ts,” below).
The elevator speech
An elevator speech is the easiest foray into the endeavor of telling your story. You may be asking yourself, “Why do I need an elevator speech?” To that, there are at least three answers. First, you have to start somewhere, so it might as well be with the least stressful piece. Second, by default, an elevator speech is a good and reliable response to the often-asked question, “So, what do you do for a living?” The third is perhaps the most beneficial: The elevator speech isn’t exclusively for use on an elevator. In fact, the term was only created to describe how quick and to the point the speech needs to be — the amount of time it takes for an elevator to travel from the lobby to the sixth floor. A solid elevator speech will serve you well when meeting salespeople, your friends’ acquaintances, new green committee members and, yes, members of the media.
An effective elevator speech has a few key components:
- Your name
- Your company name or golf course
- What you do
- Why you do it
- KISS! (Keep it short, sweetheart)
- Commonsense, everyday language
My own elevator speech may help illustrate how this works: “Hi. I’m John Fech. I’m a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska. [pause] I get to help my clients choose good grasses, trees and other plants for their landscapes, and with water conservation and pollution prevention too. [pause] Of course, sometimes things go wrong with plants, so I help them with that also.”
Notice that I didn’t say “turf scientist” or “arborist,” even though both of those would be true. Adding lots of extra words gets in the way during what’s intended to be a brief, impactful interaction. Besides, the word “horticulturist” works as an attention getter. “Superintendent” works the same way. I also recommend keeping things flexible by pausing after the first sentence to allow for a response from the other person.
While preparing your elevator speech will serve you quite well as a starting point, you’re wise to also be ready to respond to follow-up questions to make the most of the moment. At appropriate times, use “work-ins” to bolster the conversation and mention points you want to convey: “Turfgrass produces enough oxygen for one person for a day.” “Turf is important for cooling the air.” “Turf filters the air/recharges and filters groundwater supplies/reduces stormwater runoff/controls soil erosion/retains and sequesters carbon/restores soil quality.”
These phrases are golden, and they’ll help the person you’re telling your story to better understand the basic principles and your profession’s virtue. (And possibly even clear up the familiar question, “Which is better — a golf course or a parking lot?”)
Engaging with media professionals
As you ponder the concept of engaging with the media, take a step back and ask yourself, “Why bother with interviews? What’s in it for me? For the course?” After all, there are thousands of other things to do in your role as golf course superintendent, and trying to get a response from a TV station isn’t one of them.
The best step after introspection is to brainstorm some benefits of being involved with the media. There are many, including fostering heightened awareness and visibility of your facility, a favorable perception of the facility and the industry, increased public awareness of environmental issues, increased awareness of your skills and abilities by your boss and stakeholders, and an increased interest in recreation, outdoor living and lifelong learning.
I recently taught a GCSAA webinar on this topic, and one of the best responses from a participant to the “Why bother?” question was, “So that members of my community don’t think that my golf course is a chemical dump.”
Sometimes you get lucky and the media reaches out to you. Most of the time, though, you’ll need to be proactive and reach out to them. Decide early on what your objectives for an interview might be and how you might frame your request for an interview. There are three types of interviews: informational (what you want the audience to know), inquiry (what the reporter wants to tell the audience) and promotional (basically an advertisement for the course).
When the media contacts a potential interviewee, it’s usually the result of an idea that was pitched by a reporter to an assignment editor or news director at a story meeting. In larger markets, reporters compete with each other for stories and the limited number of minutes of airtime or column inches in print. When you want to connect with the media, reporters are the key players. Developing relationships with them will pay off in the long run, if not immediately.
Reaching out isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and asking the receptionist to patch you through to the person in charge. It begins with setting goals, developing a compelling theme (commonsense pest control, water conservation, when to fertilize, saving money), and creating message points. Think about creating “candy” for the eye and ear. What will look or sound appealing? The news business isn’t straight-up news anymore — it’s news plus interesting stories delivered in an enticing way — better, faster and stronger than the competition.
Engaging with the media can be approached in at least two ways: the traditional and the informal. The traditional approach is typified by the news release, which gives the who, what, where, why, when and how, along with a “kill date” after which the subject/event is no longer current or applicable. While news releases may be effective in certain situations, I suggest superintendents not waste their time on them. The average assignment editor receives numerous news releases every day, and trying to make yours stand out from the pack would be a monumental task.
A golden opportunity: Invite a local TV station’s meteorologist to broadcast the weather from your facility with an enticing view as the backdrop. Photo by John C. Fech
Instead, the informal approach works reasonably well, especially for themes such as ours in the green industry. This method starts with you thinking about what might be of interest to readers/viewers/listeners, and coming up with “bait” to get the attention of the assignment editor or news director. What would work well as bait? Lots of things — a sample “turf tips” column, for example, or an invite for a TV station’s meteorologist to broadcast the weather from the first tee. Photos can be helpful, especially for print media and television. A pitch along the lines of “Hey, there used to be an oil refinery here,” with before-and-after photos, could be a very compelling attention grabber.
Why the emphasis on bait? Are we fishing? The answer is yes, and as in fishing, the bait, the hook and the barb are all necessary, the bait being the attention getter, the hook being the thing that holds a person’s attention for a little while, and the barb being the piece that keeps the person with you.
Because engaging the media goes much more successfully if a relationship has been built, it’s advantageous to know something about the person you’re pitching to. This background information may shape your bait, hook and barb. It would be helpful to know whether the person plays golf or has ever been to a golf course, whether he or she has a lawn, kids, kids who play soccer — all of these involve turf to some degree and are relatable starting points.
Consider the following three pitches to get a clearer picture of how this all might unfold:
Bait: When was the last time that you saw a breathtaking view?
Hook: We’ve got 18 of them at Castle Creek Golf Course!
Barb: While you’re golfing, you can think about using our ideas in your landscape.
Bait: Ever wonder why the turf and landscape at a golf course looks so good?
Hook: It takes training, time and effort, but it’s worth it.
Barb: Your home landscape can look just as good.
Bait: Need to walk? Want to improve your health?
Hook: Golf is great exercise!
Barb: Golf will help to take off a few pounds, increase your heart rate, and deliver vitamin D from the sun.
There are some important do’s and don’ts to bear in mind when you are reaching out to the media. First, this is a marathon, not a sprint, so go slow to go fast. Do think of lots of individual steps along the way, and call, email and send interesting items as attention grabbers. Do watch, listen to and read local news to find out what other facilities and businesses are successful with and what they “sell” as topics for stories (pest control operators and bed bugs, roofers and hail damage, car body shops and ice storms). Do time your pitch around otherwise known elements — pitch lawn renovation and overseeding before Earth Day, for example. Do ask fellow superintendents in other states what ideas have worked for them. Do research the background of the interviewer, assignment editor or news director, and do seek to build a relationship if your pitch involves a less-than-catchy theme, such as mower safety.
A couple of don’ts: Don’t pitch the same idea to two or three different media outlets at the same time (they tend to want “exclusives”). Don’t think you’ll be viewed as an expert right away (it’s just not a realistic expectation). Above all, don’t get discouraged — you’ll probably take three steps forward and two steps back.
If you’re fortunate enough to land an interview, performing well in it is what it’s all about. The ideal way to start prepping is to create three message points and begin the interview with the most important one. Next, use one or two descriptive statements, and end by explaining what it means or why it matters for the audience. For example, “Water can be conserved while growing a healthy and appealing lawn and landscape. You’ll need to measure the output of water from sprinklers and check infiltration in various parts of the landscape, and lower water bills and less water used will be the result for all of us.”
Listening carefully to an interviewer’s questions and pausing before responding will help you more strongly deliver a talking point. Wearing solid colors and branding are also a must for a television interview. Photo by John C. Fech
Having researched the interviewer’s background, experience and possible agenda will pay off during the interview. A way to stack the deck in your favor is to ask for the questions in advance so you can prepare for the tougher ones. Better yet, supply the interviewer with suggested questions — it will mean less work for him or her, and will allow you to address your strengths.
This technique leads to the next consideration: Do you control the interview, or do you allow yourself to be controlled? Some veteran media consultants, especially those in the political world, will hold that the airtime or the print space is simply an entity to be exploited — that no matter what the question is, it’s best simply to respond with a talking point regardless of whether it’s pertinent. My recommendation has always been to do both — answer questions directly and also repeat message points. This approach accomplishes the dual goals of respecting and valuing the interviewer’s interests while getting your important information across to the audience.
Cadence is another key consideration with television and radio broadcasts. It’s “ear candy.” Effective messaging borrows from the music industry’s concept of a “hook” — that one thing that subtly gets ingrained in your brain. Crafting a hook, delivering your three message points in the format previously described, and repeating your core points are all tactics consistent with good cadence. All of your answers need to be kept relatively short, and when in doubt, aim to answer a question in three sentences (no more, no less), and then stop talking and wait for the next question.
“Bridging” phrases can be helpful when working with an inexperienced or agenda-driven reporter. These help to bring the reporter (and audience) back to the main message point and deflect questions that you don’t want to answer. Examples of bridging phrases are: “It’s important to remember that ...” “Not really, but let’s talk about what is happening ...” “Another thing to keep in mind is that ...” and “Yes, but the key point here is ...”
Given the possible negative turns that a golf or green industry interview could take, it’s practical to be prepared for a scenario in which you perceive the reporter going in a direction you hadn’t intended. Consider the following interview questions and golf-appropriate bridging phrases and responses:
Q: Doesn’t applying fertilizer cause pollution?
A: Sure, it can happen, but the good news is that groundwater pollution can be avoided and turf can be cared for properly.
Use slow-release nutrient sources.
- Water the products off the blades and into the soil profile.
- Use a blower to move the pellets back to the turf itself.
Q: I’ve heard that golf courses use a lot of water. Isn’t that wasteful?
A: We regularly audit our irrigation system to improve the efficiency and reduce water use. Additionally, we are gradually converting some out-of-play areas to wildflower and pollinator plantings.
Q: So, you have to spray a lot of pesticides on the turf to kill the bugs, don’t you?
A: At Castle Creek, we scout and monitor for pests as a first course of action to maintain a functional, aesthetically pleasing playing surface. We often use non-chemical control measures to reduce pest pressure on the turf. When we do apply pest control agents, we do so only according to label directions, keeping environmental protection as a priority.
Performing well in a newspaper, television or radio interview is a skill, just like playing the guitar or speaking another language. After your first interaction with the media, you’ll likely find it beneficial to read the article or watch the interview with a critical eye. Ask for feedback and constructive criticism from others. In most cases, we tend to be our own worst critics. Engaging with the media on behalf of yourself or to promote your company, course or industry is a valuable and worthwhile endeavor, and knowing what works in such situations and why it works — along with knowing what to avoid — can prove as useful as any tool in your maintenance shop.
Media interview do’s and don’ts
As with reaching out to members of the media or pitching a story, there are some essential do’s and don’ts for the actual interview. Some are self-explanatory, while others will become more evident as you have a few experiences to reflect upon.
- Don’t do the interview on the spot. Prepare beforehand.
- Listen carefully to each question and pause before beginning your answer.
- Say the most important thing first. Your interview may be cut short unexpectedly.
- Maintain steady eye contact with the reporter.
- Wear solid colors, with your logo on the shirt.
- Sit up straight, smile, relax.
- Be reliable. Be early to the interview.
- KISS! (Not the rock group — “Keep it short, sweetheart.”)
- Use facts only.
- Try to work in additional mentions of your facility. For example, “Aerification for good drainage and density — that’s what we’re doing at Castle Creek right now.”
- Have something extra to say or share. Reporters are trained to ask, “Is there anything else that we haven’t covered?”
- Don’t say “no comment.” It’s a red flag that says “Hey, there’s something more to this” to the reporter.
- Don’t interrupt the interviewer.
- Don’t use jargon.
- Don’t speculate. Instead, say, “I’m not an expert at that. Let me find out and get back to you.”
- Don’t present information “off the record.” You are never off the record.
- Don’t touch the microphone or table. It will sound like a freight train to the audience.
- Don’t use a lot of gestures. It’s distracting.
- Don’t ask to edit the story or interview. It’s insulting to the reporter.
John C. Fech is a horticulturist and Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a frequent and award-winning contributor to GCM.