Greet the Press

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2007

For decades, radio host Don Imus’ offensive vitriol paid off in lucrative on-air contracts with CBS and MSNBC, until one day, after spewing out a three-word racist epithet, he destroyed his entire career. It happened that fast.

“At that point, there was no saving him,” says Steve Shenbaum, founder and president of Game On in Bradenton. Shenbaum’s job is to make sure that never happens to his clients. As a public image builder, he works with reputations everyday, mostly in the high-stakes world of elite athletes at IMG Academies in Manatee County, and more recently in the corporate world, with executives and high-ranking employees who have to face the public. Tennis champion Pete Sampras was a client, as was basketball star and actor Rick Fox, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, golfer Paula Creamer and basketball phenom Carmelo Anthony. Gatorade scientists and executives from Discovery Card and Prince Tennis have also used his techniques, and so has the Manatee County School Board.

There’s a reason athletes and corporate types are clamoring for Shenbaum’s services. The proliferation of media outlets and the speed with which information is relayed today mean that no misstep goes unnoticed, and one can be broadcast over and over again, cementing forever in the public’s mind a thoughtless comment, an insensitive e-mail or a leap onto Oprah’s couch. Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson or FEMA’s feckless Michael Brown, anyone?

“Actors, athletes and CEOs are scrutinized more than ever today,” says Shenbaum. And in a world where huge profits and big endorsements are at stake, the industry of crisis managers and spin doctors is growing.

Once an individual or company gets to the point of needing experts in crisis communication, they’re already at the point of failure to the 36-year-old Shenbaum. “I don’t do crisis management,” he says. “My goal is to prevent my clients from ever getting into that water. This would have been my advice to Don Imus before he made those remarks: Be sensitive. Honor the other person. Use sound judgment. Understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate. Think before you speak.”

If that advice sounds too Pollyannaish in an era of shock jocks, reality shows and free-for-all MySpace pages, it nonetheless sums up the approach of Game On, which is headquartered on the campus of IMG in a comfy little room with velvet curtains. Behind the curtains is the Game On Performance Center, which opened just this month. Part theater, part mock press conference room, it’s a place where athletes and CEOs—for $1,500 for a half-day course and $3,500 for an entire day for a group of 10—can practice interviews with the media by using improvisation and acting techniques that Shenbaum and his associate director, Blair Dalton, learned as college theater majors. (Game On is not the only company to use acting techniques in corporate settings: Chicago’s Second City, Improv Olympics and Pinnacle Performance Co., which just opened a Sarasota office, are just a few companies that also use improv to teach communication skills.) 

One day last spring, five bronzed young IMG athletes and a skinny USF student showed up for a session of improv to improve their communication and social skills. As the room filled with the smell of suntan lotion and nervous giggles, Shenbaum and Dalton gave the teens a task: to write down any sentence that came to mind and place it face down on the coffee table. Shenbaum grouped the kids in teams of two and told the first pair to pick up two pieces of paper. The first said, “Blame Canada,” and the second, “What’s shakin’, bakin?” The assignment, he told the first pair, was to create a skit that used the two sentences in context. The goal was to get the kids to feel comfortable in front of an audience and to teach these elite young athletes, most of whom have grown up in the rarified world of top coaches and high pressure—no proms, sleepovers or hanging out at the mall—how to help one another out in a conversation. Social and life skills, basically. “Don’t be your own agent,” Shenbaum instructs. “Build off one another. You’re playing doubles.”

Later, after some pretty clever skits, Shenbaum says, “There’s really no difference between what these kids have to learn and what I teach corporate groups. My secret is everyone’s scared. So we try to approach public image with truth. No rehearsed answers. Be honest. Stand by your product, know your audience, use humor, don’t get emotional and…breathe.”

Shenbaum founded Game On in 1997, after studying theater at Northwestern University in Chicago and then heading to L.A. to act in dozens of cereal and car commercials, movies and sitcoms. His roles often personified, in an exaggerated way, how he comes across in person: a wholesome Midwestern guy with a pinch of the goofy class clown, someone you might have wanted to take advantage of in high school, but ended up liking too much for his decency and high spirits. He did character parts: the nerdy coach in American Pie 2; a used-car salesman on Dharma and Greg who couldn’t make a sale because he just couldn’t lie.

But ultimately, acting was not his passion. A high school athlete and theater bum in high school, he told his mother at age 14 that he was going to run a camp called Double Play for baseball players who wanted to play baseball in the morning and do theater in the afternoon. “I’ve always wanted to combine teaching, athletics and improv. I knew this all along,” he says.

Game On came about when Shenbaum was in L.A. and a friend of his from Northwestern began dating tennis star Pete Sampras. Sampras saw Shenbaum in a one-man show and eventually the two became friends. “We would talk about his frustration with his image. He would say, ‘How can I change? People think I’m boring,’” Shenbaum explains. “He said he’d like to hire me to help him communicate, so I took three months and created the curriculum, using friends from L.A. and Northwestern and collecting as many improv games as possible so we could create his confidence off the court. Pete’s a smart, charming guy in a comfortable environment. No one’s initially comfortable in front of the media, especially nowadays when everything’s scrutinized and has a shelf life of forever.”

Quickly, Shenbaum’s client roster began to grow to include other well-known athletes. It didn’t take long for IMG, the world’s largest sports and entertainment marketer, to find out about his work. Greg Breunich, senior vice president of IMG Academies in Bradenton, flew Shenbaum and his business partners to the IMG campus.

“It was like Disneyland. Everything I wanted,” Shenbaum remembers. “Pete Sampras told me he wished he’d had this program when he was younger. When I walked on the IMG campus, I saw a hundred little Pete Samprases. It was an incredible environment, five sports, access to 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds—that’s when you can make an impact.”

Breunich, a former tennis coach, liked Shenbaum’s charisma. “What Steve has on the property is a significant element of our program,” he says. “He delivers a trained skill. It’s like a back-handed serve. You’re not born with it.”

Today Game On is an independent contractor on the IMG campus. “Anything that has to do with communication, we handle,” he says.

Shenbaum also sees corporate clients on the IMG campus or flies to the company to conduct seminars. He says no matter whether he’s coaching kids or CEOs, the same techniques apply. CEOs, like top athletes, often expect greatness of themselves; they want fireworks when they speak in public or perform. It’s an unrealistic goal, and one that paralyzes highly competent people at the podium or in front of a microphone.

Gatorade sent three scientists to the IMG campus to learn how to deal with the press and communicate better internally. Through games and improv, Shenbaum taught the scientists how not to react in public. “Reporters love when someone reacts,” he says. “Then the interviewer is in control. I’d rather my clients be calm. They need to count to three before they answer, use humor and be brief. The less you speak, the less you can be misinterpreted.”

If Shenbaum wants his clients to come away with anything, it’s this: “Stop spinning. Don’t chase the money. Chase your integrity and be honest and take care of the other person. In the long run that approach will end up with more money.”


Media-savvy advice from Steve Shenbaum.

If you’re doing TV:

TV shows facial reactions and body language, so think about how you’re reacting physically.

Don’t rush.

Less is more.

Don’t wear white or crazy patterns.

Do bring a jacket or sweater, because TV studios are notoriously cold.

Before anything begins, ask as many questions as possible. Do I look at the camera? Where will I sit? What are you going to ask me? TV people want you to sound good. It makes everyone uncomfortable if you stumble.

Think of one person you love to talk to and put that person in the camera.

Be sincere. “Oliver North was sincere. I didn’t say truthful, but he believed in what he was saying. Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling didn’t believe what they were saying.”

Don’t read a script. Speak from the heart.

If you’re doing radio:

Paint a picture for your audience. Think about how you’d describe your favorite movie and share it visually.

Even though no one can see you, continue to use your body and hand gestures as you speak because that will put emotion in your voice.

Don’t ever do your interview in your car, lying on the couch or with your buddies in the room.

Have a pad and paper in hand to write down people’s names if it’s a call-in show. “Hi, Michelle from Sarasota. I’m glad you asked that.” But don’t overdo the names.

If you’re doing print:

Less is more, since it’s easy to be misquoted in print.

Be concise. No rambling. The reporter gets lost and goes off track.

Have a beginning, middle and an end to your answers. ‘How was your morning?’ ‘Good, I made waffles.’ Avoid one-word answers; they give reporters nothing to work off.

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