Spithill – PR smooth sailing or rough waters?

Luke Balvert | Account Manager America’s Cup

photo: Donan.raven

Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill might be a masterful tactician on the water but he is proving just as adept on land carving out a skilful niche as the media stand-up antagonist.

The 35th edition of the America’s Cup is sailing ahead and Spithill is wasting no time in living up to his billing of using the skippers’ press conferences to be a constant barb in teams’ side – particularly us

Kiwis. Already he’s fired several shots at Team New Zealand during the first few press conferences, picking up where he left off in San Francisco four years ago. Though keep in mind that the America’s Cup has become known as much for the off-water antics as it has for the on-water action with guarded secrets, mind games and out-and- out feuds between sailors. 

It’s refreshing, invigorating and brings an edge to what have long been, and are sure to continue as, the customary sporting press conferences.

But does Spithill, the man who oversaw a comeback from 8-1 down to win the America’s Cup for a second time, have Oracle’s media team in damage-control mode as he’s handed to mic or is this a confident sporting PR model others could look to adopt?

From where I’m sitting I don’t see issue with some harmless competitor banter and jostling as it breathes some life into the media environment and offers something tantalisingly different.

An avid sports fan, each week I’m hard pressed to find an athlete interview – rugby, cricket, netball, the list goes on – that deviates from the mundane script of it being a “game of two halves”, “the better team won on the day” or “I’m proud of the team for their efforts”.

When was the last time Peter Burling, Sam Cane or Kane Williamson said something outrageous in front of a camera, or media, and changed a journalist’s article angle? (Putting aside the PR bungle that was the Chiefs stripper fiasco as that is another matter completely).

Few follow Spithill’s lead in exuding such confidence. Instead, nine times out of 10, an athlete, coach (or skipper in this instance), will claim the underdog tag and stick to the media script of “preparing well during the week” and “facing quality opposition”.

Sure, Spithill gets under the skin of his competitors, but there is just as a convincing argument for it not fitting with the modern sport PR model.

Today’s corporate sport climate means that sport entities, especially athletes, have (or more specifically are being trained) to be socially presentable, accurate and a little humble. Some have to work just as hard off the field as on it to be a good role model who presents a favourable image to each of their publics. An athlete’s PR success is proportional to their ability to deal with media and public expectation.

As we know, like any form of PR, it is not how the sporting organisation/entity sees itself, but how it is perceived by others. It is uncontrollable but can be planned for, and therefore PR agencies, or media teams, attempt to coordinate/guide as much of this public coverage and exposure as possible.

Imagine if Team NZ skipper Peter Burling came out in a similar vein and landed some verbal blows? Would he not draw the ire of the Kiwi media and public as being cocky, arrogant and not Kiwi-like?

However, in this instance it sure seems Oracle boss and billionaire Larry Ellison endorses Spithill’s expressiveness.

Spithill has developed a reputation as the master of mind games and time will tell if that will continue. First impressions are that it will.