As someone who trains the C-Suite on Media Handling Skills, what we in the PR profession sometimes shorten to Media Training, I can empathise with Naomi Osaka for not wanting to speak with journalists after her matches.
At the same time I cannot but help wonder if Osaka was professional in citing mental health as the reason for pulling out of the French Open.
However you look at it though, the power equation between the media and their interviewees is changing because of social media ,so it should prompt journalists to do some navel gazing at how they should behave in press conferences and other interview situations. Let me explain.
Firstly, Osaka deserves our sympathy because the media can be inane. How inane? see this article in Vice.
The media can ask all sorts of questions, whatever suits their fancy. This is so and has been so for a long time because of the power that the media once held over our public lives.
At their apex, the media could make you or break you because they were the only means of reaching a wider audience. They acted as gatekeepers and shaped the opinions of the public. Their influence was so pervasive that Mark Twain counselled us to “never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
The residual authority from its heyday makes many journalists think they have a right to question any public figure and lob hardball questions at them. Never mind the caliber of question, the interviewee should answer truthfully, honestly and openly, without losing their cool. If they lose their temper in the process, then tough luck for the interviewee and good luck for the journalist because it makes good copy or television.
Then there is Osaka. Here one needs to be careful as once mental health is invoked in this age of cancel culture, everyone gets hyper-sensitive. To be heard even questioning whether the excuse is appropriately professional is to face the possibility of being accused of insensitivity, racism, sexism and other labels.
Nonetheless what needs to be said is that she did, as a consenting adult, sign a contract with the French Open and part of the contractual requirement is that she appear at press conferences after matches. It’s not right, and may not even be informative for the viewers and fans, but let’s face it, professional tennis is not a sport but part of the entertainment industry. The industry is funded by sponsors and advertisers. To keep sponsors sponsoring and advertisers advertising they need to feed the Content Beast. When Osaka signed with the French Open she signed up for feeding the Beast, which in turn ensured a large pay checks she gets when she wins tournaments.
I am sure that someone like Osaka must have been media trained. The answers, when she was still speaking at press conferences, were good ones. Even when she was faced by stupid and inane questions. She was able to hold her own. Some of the fundamental lessons in media training is to expect the media to ask inane questions but mercifully reporters’ questions do not matter; what matters is our answer – what we say and how we say it. Another lesson is that reporters tend to ask the same questions many times, even when you’re just answered the same question.
Everyone, from this perspective, should take a leaf from Henry Kissinger’s playbook. He famously walked into a press conference saying something like “I have prepared my answers, I am now ready to take your questions.”
It is therefore a bit debatable whether Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open was a professional move, after all one of the definitions of a professional is someone who makes money from a certain activity or a sport. If you make money from the sport, it behoves the professional to understand how the sport is funded in the first place.
No matter which side of the debate you fall on, one issue that we should all consider seriously is the professionalism of the Press. What should professional sports journalists ask that would inform, educate and entertain (tastefully) their readers and viewers? That would be a journalist’s job.
But when they descend to inanity, then they are not doing any favours to anyone. They need to realise that in today’s world, where a player can tweet and reach more people than the entire audience of their media outlets, they no longer live in the days where they buy ink by the barrel.