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UFC tossed years of good publicity in media power play

It wasn’t long ago that decades old sports leagues admired UFC’s creativity, popularity and fan loyalty. Publicity for this mixed martial arts organization was off the charts.

Now we see it as a group that may have taken all of its positive publicity for granted.

During the past weekend, well-known MMA reporter Ariel Helwani was reportedly stripped of his press credential “for life” after he broke news about a returning star for which he had reliable sources. People that works in sports journalism or knows the role of a reporter say that he was doing his job.

Outsiders wonder if this was a case of misunderstanding or a business not knowing any better. Sometimes organizations see great headlines and flush bank accounts, but don’t understand the media’s role. They don’t know that reporters sent to cover their sports aren’t there to be their public relations staff. If I didn’t know any better, that seems to be the case with UFC. Why else would the powerful Ultimate Fighting Championship subject itself to atypical public and media scrutiny?

We PR types like control

As public relations specialists, people in my industry have ideal scenarios where we control our clients’ and organizations’ messages. We want news to go out at a specific time in a specific manner with information we provide. The people we represent like it that way. They often demand it.

We also know that in real life, our perfectly packaged announcements aren’t always revealed as we plan. Add the growth of social media, and very little remains under wraps for long.boxer

No comment leads to public dictating conversation

Since UFC president Dana White made no official comment as to why Helwani was stripped of his credentials June 4, the public created its own narrative for three days about what went down. (Today White made a vague statement to, but with little detail.)

Hundreds of journalists from all ills, as well as MMA competitors, have come to Helwani’s defense. I heard some suggest that this power play proves that UFC isn’t a real sport because true sports organizations wouldn’t behave this way.

NFL, NBA, MLB look great now

We often criticize the NFL, NBA and MLB for certain policies, but media that cover each benefit from organizations that speak to and defend their journalists’ rights. The UFC and Helwani don’t have that. Regardless, from what we do know, (again, we, the public, are communicating the narrative we believe to be true), Helwani was stripped of his media credentials for reporting news before that organization released it on its own terms. If that happened with other leagues, grown adults in jerseys would be outraged. It would be like firing an NFL reporter for speaking about an anticipated matchup or rule change before the league released it on its stationary. It would omit any discussion of a team except for game nights, sports media outlets would be unnecessary and cash flow would become a drip because marketers would find better exposure for their brands.

The UFC is in essence, bit the proverbial hand that feeds it.

There are better ways to communicate with reporters. With the move against Helwani, the UFC is at least for now, rebranding itself not as a sports organization, but as a bully that sells sophisticated workouts.

UPDATE: No sooner did I hit “publish” on this post when I read that Helwani, by his own admission was, in essence, paid by UFC before his unceremonious ouster. As the Deadspin piece says, however, it doesn’t justify banning a writer for doing what was reportedly his job.  If he was hired to be a voice for the group, he should have been advised about news as other PR staffers were.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Helwani’s credential was restored.

©Gail Sideman; PUBLISIDE



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