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PR Lessons from Spartan CEO’s ‘No Retreat: Business Bootcamp’

March 29, 2022

Spend five minutes on Zoom with Joe De Sena, founder and CEO of Spartan, the world’s leading endurance sports and extreme wellness brand, and you’ll come away with a dozen ways to improve yourself. He’s that type of magnetic leader.

(And he walks the walk; Joe just returned from a humanitarian trip to Ukraine’s border, where he personally delivered supplies.)

Thanks to his new prime time show on CNBC, audiences across the world can now tap into Joe’s business brain. If you haven’t seen “No Retreat: Business Bootcamp,” here are the Cliffs Notes: Joe and his team help companies overcome their biggest obstacles by putting staff through punishing tasks — and I don’t use that word lightly — over three days on “the farm,” the De Sena family property in the mountains of Vermont. Participants leave transformed, with a fresh mindset, ready to tackle the tough stuff in business.

I recently rewatched the first two episodes of “No Retreat: Business Bootcamp” through my lens as a communications advisor to our partners at Spartan. It didn’t disappoint.

Here are some lessons for the PR professional, inspired by Joe’s unconventional approach:

Media training: Doing hard things breeds success.

In the first episode, Joe had the owners and employees of a cleaning businesses crawl through the mud, under barbed wire, while he peppered them with questions about their company. With each wrong answer, they rolled into deeper, wetter mud. They couldn’t recall their biggest and best customer, the number of cleaning sites, or the last four digits of the company’s emergency call-in number (several times!). In other words, they failed (and got really, really dirty).

As PR pros, you can’t assume your top executives know the minutiae, or even the big stuff. You definitely can’t assume they’ll perform under pressure during a media interview, even if armed with top-notch talking points.

It’s on us to prepare our key spokespeople. That means putting them through the ringer. Build an executive media training program — one that gets your C-suite leaders on their heels. Ask the toughest possible questions, watch the tape together, and give honest feedback. Give them space to roll through the muck in private, so that it doesn’t happen in public. Then do it again.

As Joe said: “The cold and the mud broke free a bunch of stuff that should have been discussed [earlier].” Take the same approach to your media training.

By the end of the show? The owners knew that four-digit number: 4-9-3-7.

Crisis response: Leadership requires confidence.

In another task, Joe had staff of the same company lift a massive log several feet into the air using a complicated, interconnected series of ropes and a pulley. The business’s owner was tasked with being the project leader. His instinct said to use the pulley, but he lacked conviction, putting the question to the group instead of taking charge. The task ended up being much harder. He created chaos instead of completion.

How many times have you seen this play out in PR? Maybe you’ve been part of a crisis response — one of PR’s most critical functions — that lacked confident leadership. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Every crisis response team should have a point person in PR steering the effort. Of course, your colleagues and executives should have input. But when times get tough, they deserve an accurate, honest assessment of the public sentiment. You’re the one best equipped to deliver that message, weigh the team’s feedback, and confidently recommend a path forward.

Be the person who makes the decision and owns the outcome. You’re the expert. Be strong from the punch. (Knowing your spokespeople have been media-trained for crises helps, too.)

Strategy: Discuss the path and stick to it.

In the second episode, Joe walks into a NYC realty group’s office to meet the team. What does he find? They’re not working — they’re in a circle, belting out a song. He later finds out that the company’s leadership is focused on expansion, despite having significant loans, profitability issues, and most importantly, infrastructure needs that haven’t been addressed. Oh, and they cut a music album for $80,000.

Joe’s task for them: carry logs that are chained together, and then make a decision, as a team, between expansion and infrastructure at a fork in the path. They chose infrastructure. Had they gone toward expansion, Joe would have made them add logs and carry more weight, making the trek harder, unwieldy, and maybe impossible to complete.

In PR, there’s always a “shiny object.” Something that has the potential to take us off course. We can protect against distractions — especially the ones that come from above — by codifying a communications strategy.

It’s never too late to start the strategy conversation with company leadership. Have a frank discussion about business objectives and blue-sky outcomes. If there are multiple stakeholder groups — board committees, influential employees, etc. — make sure they’re involved; you’ll build a broad consensus on PR strategy by making them part of the process.

Work backward from there. Invest your time and PR budget in areas that are going to drive top-line results for the business. Put forth your recommendations, be open to feedback, and then present the approved communications strategy to all stakeholders.

Now you have a document that guides your day-to-day activities. Strategy lightens the load by keeping your stakeholders moving in the same direction. (Plus all the other benefits!) Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Now you have a few ideas to put into practice. Check out “No Retreat: Business Bootcamp” on CNBC and let us know what you learn!

(Want more Joe De Sena? Listen to interviews on From Founder to CEO, On the Tape, and Take A Knee with Adam Carolla.)

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