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Memo to Barstool Sports CEO: Sitting for a Media Interview is Not Like Chatting on a Bar Stool

By March 8, 2019 March 12th, 2019 News & Viewpoints

A media interview is not like a casual conversation between two people at a bar. It’s not a conversation at all. It’s an opportunity to harness the media megaphone to put forth your pre-determined messages—and stick to them. Based on recent events, Barstool Sports clearly does not know how to play the media game.   

Here’s the deal. The already polarizing sports and culture blog used someone’s video without permission. The rightful video owner reported them to Twitter for content theft. In response, they aggressively stalked and hounded her in a failed effort to get her to withdraw her complaint since a rising number of similar infractions moves Barstool Sports perilously close to getting banned from Twitter. She ignored them and they ratcheted up their harassment of her. When the video owner shared her story on Twitter, it went viral online, where Barstool Sports’ business model will thrive or die. The backlash to the company was not pretty (Deadspin’s take on it: “Stop Enabling Barstool’s S**t”).

Barstool Sports appeared to appreciate the gravity of their exposure online, and perhaps in court, so CEO Erika Nardini eventually sat with Fast Company in a clear attempt to address the problem and put it to rest. So far, so good. When Fast Company asked Nardini what she thought about the controversy, she responded crisply and correctly, “I am not pleased with how we responded. The way we responded to {the video’s rightful owner}, what we responded to her with, the accounts we responded to her from, I think what Barstool botched in this case is the response…and we own that…”  She also pointed to internal changes she would be making as a result. Perfect. But that’s not where the interview or this story ends.

Nardini was then asked, “Speaking of contrite, have you personally issued an apology?” Nardini replied “To whom?” Then she flippantly added, “What exactly am I apologizing for?” Boom. Fast Company ran with the headline, “Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini finally responds, “What do I have to apologize for?” And with that, the controversy machine fired up online all over again.

It should surprise nobody in a communications role to prep the CEO—who is on an apology tour—that she will get asked if she will apologize, which is what she essentially did in the first quote above. The fact she was surprised and did not offer the right answer in her second quote above is a head shaking moment (hint: apologize to those you harm, especially when you just conceded you, in fact, harmed her). The question was a predictable, easy pitch right down the middle. Through a combination of too much arrogance and not enough media prep, rather than hitting a home run at a clutch moment, Barstool Sports struck out in spectacular fashion.  

John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm and serves as a trusted advisor to the firm’s clients on risk management, crisis communications, media coaching and a range of other services. Here are five questions to assess your organization’s level of crisis preparedness, with our contact information if you’d like to learn more.