Pressing Conferences

Over a dozen years ago I was reporting on the Sunshine Tour when John Bland – already considered a ‘veteran’, even back then – stormed to the top of the leader board on the first day of the Fancourt Hall of Fame Championship. A local media reporter from George had been sent to report on the tournament. She had never seen golf before.

Clearly nervous but bravely aware of her duty to produce a decent soundbite from the beaming Bland at his post-round press conference, the lady swallowed deeply, thrust her microphone in the golfer’s direction and asked: “So John, any holes in one today?”

Without skipping a beat, without drawing breath in fact, Bland turned smartly in the direction of the mike and replied: “No Ma’am, but I’m hoping for some tomorrow.”

Lesson: If you travel to France you’d better learn a couple of words of the language or you’ll get treated like an incontinent tramp with bad breath. But if you can say “deux bierres, s’il vous plait – merci bien” you might well be invited back to the barman’s house for a family lunch.

And if you’re going to report on a sports event, and you’re not an expert, make an effort to learn something about your subject before you pitch up and start asking dumb questions. If you do make an effort, 99 out of 100 sports men and women will reciprocate the respect shown and make an effort to sound interested and sincere. OK, that’s an exaggeration. Maybe 85 out of 100.

If in doubt, ask a journalist who does know. There is always one, at the very least, prepared to spare a colleague the potential humiliation of making a dumb, stupid mistake. (Does anyone remember when the World Tenpin Bowling Championships came to Jo’burg a few years ago? There was one, dear, kind man from Dallas who effectively wrote the copy for every newspaper and agency in Africa, let alone South Africa. None of us had a clue, so we all asked Hank. At least, I think it was Hank. He looked like a Hank and he loved our steaks.)

Graeme Smith had a John Bland moment after Friday’s loss against New Zealand in Wellington. Except there were TWO sportless news reporters at the post match press conference, not just one. And neither had done any research, not even of the hole-in-one variety.

Smith started the briefing by opening himself like a can of beans: “We just weren’t good enough, it wasn’t acceptable, no excuses, we bowled rubbish, great credit to New Zealand etc etc…” Frankly, he’d given every journalist in the room enough quotes to write a lead story, let alone a sidebar. It should have stopped there.

But no, that would have been far too sensible and easy. It would be far more fun, thought the New Zealand press officer, to allow Smith to face another 10 minutes of inane blathering from the clueless pair.

“So, Graeme, you, err, South Africa have, you know, had our number for (inaudible mumble), so what went wrong tonight?”

Now, take all those words and rearrange them into 14 different patterns. Then place a question mark at the end. Then try and come up with 14 different answers without screaming something like: “As I’ve just f***ing said ten times…” Then imagine you’re Graeme Smith.

Ever dialed a helpline and listened to canned music for 15 minutes? Frustrating, isn’t it? Graeme Smith isn’t alone in having to deal with that almost every day of his life, but he has a long way to go to learn the tactics and techniques of, say, Stephen Fleming who is so brilliant at answering questions that he can deliver a one word answer in such a way that the clueless hack who asked the question feels like Albert Einstein.

“Finally, Graeme, have you guys got any players coming just for the Test series, after the one-dayers are over?”

Smith glanced quickly around the room. Was this the time to let rip? Perhaps something cute like: “Would you like a copy of our squad and itinerary?” Or maybe “Have you ever thought of reading your own newspaper?”

Fortunately not. Instead it was: “Umm, yes. We have four new players. Four. Four pairs of fresh legs. Yes, four. Thanks.” In the circumstances,it was a great leave.

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