Group Gordon’s Alison Berg serves up PR tips based on lessons learned on the tennis court.
I’ve been playing tennis since I barely had the strength to hold up a racket. It’s a game of strategy, mental fortitude, and sportsmanship, and it’s a lot of fun! In watching the US Open this year with a more analytical eye, I’ve realized that being a tennis player has shaped me as a person and professional. Below are a few valuable lessons I’ve drawn for public relations from the game I love.
In tennis, serving is considered a huge advantage. You are expected to win the games in which you serve – so much so that winning your service game is called a “hold,” as though you already have the game in hand and just have to keep it. Losing your service game is called a “break” because that grip on victory has been broken. Serving puts you in control and lets you set the tone for the point; it’s the only time you are not reacting to the placement, speed, and spin of the ball already in play.
In PR, you get a similar advantage when you take control and drive the original narrative. By holding onto the opportunity to be the storyteller, you won’t have to defend against information others put out there but instead can set up the story you want. Even, or perhaps especially, if it’s not great news, take the initiative to serve the information with the timing, placement, and framing that will best achieve your goals.
Tennis is a game of anticipation. Players study tapes of their peers’ games in advance, watch the movement of their racket and body before they strike the ball to predict what is coming their way, and plan around vulnerabilities in their own game and court position.
The same degree of preparation also leads to effective PR strategy. Before putting out news or a statement, study the current environment, including what your peers are doing and how successful they’ve been. Identify opportunities based on gaps in their strategy or execution and take advantage. Analyze the movement of the news cycle to anticipate where the conversation may go next so that you can lead it or beat it there. And be aware of your weaknesses and act to minimize them. For example, anticipate questions about ongoing challenges by having statements and strategies prepared to bridge back to your side of the story.
In tennis, a show of brute force – an overhead winner or a monster serve – can win you the point, but these shots are not sustainable for the entirety of a set. Strategy, consistency, and placement are what win matches.
Similarly in PR, the most aggressive option may result in a flash in the pan, but a thoughtful strategy, consistent coverage that builds momentum, and intentional placements that reach your core audience result in the most successful and sustainable campaigns.
There’s a reason you have two serves in tennis—no one’s first shot is perfect every time. You can come out strong and take a risk knowing you’ll have the safety net of a solid and safer second shot.
In PR, it’s great if Plan A is bold with the opportunity for high returns, though harder to pull off. But always have an alternate plan at the ready that relies on a practiced and reliable strategy that you know will yield results.
My lifelong tennis fandom has been more than entertaining; it has been an education. With these principles of the sport, you can also ace your PR game.