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Media blitz: Ravens learn to handle press coverage

The double doors swing open, and the media pack swarms into the Ravens' luxurious locker room at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills. Recorder-wielding reporters and camera-carrying videographers scan the stalls, searching for the heroes — or goats — du jour.

On Wednesday, their prey includes T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who hauled in the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers.

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One reporter swoops in. Then another. And another. In an instant, Houshmandzadeh is surrounded — cameras and microphones all up in his grill — as the pack fires questions, trying to get a juicy sound bite out of the loose-tongued wide receiver.

"The pressure with the media now, it's a mother," Houshmandzadeh said after the crowd cleared.

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It's the job of the Ravens' media relations staff to make sure players and coaches don't go ballistic on reporters, as former Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf did. Or accidentally send a photo of their junk out into the blogosphere, a la Redskins tight end Chris Cooley. Or pose with fans in a drunken photo that shows up on Deadspin.com and DrunkAthlete.com, as Kyle Boller did when he was the Ravens' starting quarterback.

They do it through media training.

"Guys have been used to dealing with the media [from playing in college]," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Once you get here, they give you examples of how not to do things. Guys grabbing cameras or Ryan Leaf, the way he handled himself, that was just terrible. They don't really tell you what to do, but they tell you what not to do."

'It's going to be on ESPN'
It all starts in training camp, when the Ravens hold a 45-minute media training seminar for all players and coaches (they also put on a rookies-only session in the offseason). They learn about potential pitfalls when speaking to reporters, interacting with fans and using social media, to ensure they don't fall victim to the 24-hour news cycle and show up on TMZ.com or become fodder for "Around the Horn" and "Pardon the Interruption."

"We tell them, 'No matter what you say, where you say, when you say, it's going to be on ESPN next if it's outlandish in some way, so you have to be aware of that,'" said Senior Vice President of Public and Community Relations Kevin Byrne, who has been with the organization for 30 years.

The media relations staff also explains the benefits of working with the media and familiarizes players and staff with local media outlets and reporters. "Our biggest point is, 'You can create your own brand through the media,'" director of media relations Chad Steele said. "[Fans] will probably never meet you, so the way to do that is through the media." The team invites local media to speak to players and coaches and explain what they're looking for from them.

Since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, the media relations staff has added a component on the problems players face while using social media. A year ago, the Chargers fined cornerback Antonio Cromartie for Tweeting an unflattering review of the food at team headquarters. Jets coach Rex Ryan benched wide receiver David Clowney for complaining about playing time on Twitter. This preseason, the NFL fined Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco $25,000 for tweeting during a game.

"You've just got to be careful. Look over every Tweet and make sure it's the right thing to put out there," said rookie defensive tackle Arthur Jones, whose Twitter handle is @artj97. "If you follow Michael Oher, he always stays positive on his Twitter."

On a day-to-day basis, the Ravens are flooded with interview requests — for example, Ray Lewis gets at least 25 a week during the season — which means they have to be selective because of time constraints. And some players don't want to speak to certain media members because of past criticism, which they usually hear about from friends and family. "For the most part, players don't seek that  [coverage of themselves] out," Steele said.

Giving 110 percent clichés
Before they talk into a microphone or a tape recorder, the players are prepped on the reporter, the subject of the interview and the kinds of questions they will be asked. "It's all about putting them in the right situations," Steele said, helping them give quality quotes and insightful information. That means not only avoiding headline-causing slip-ups, but also steering clear of the dreaded sports clichés hammered into their helmets by coaches who are trying to keep the bulletin boards of opponents bare.

"When you use a hundred different clichés," Johnson said, "those interviews are pointless."

When it comes to cutting back on coach-speak, Joe Flacco is a work in progress. The starting quarterback is known for his bland interviews, a trait common with young players who are worried about saying something they're not supposed to. After interviews, the media relations staff gives Flacco and his 52 less-scrutinized teammates feedback for their next trip to the podium.

"I know he's getting better as an interview," Steele said of Flacco. Steele was impressed by how Flacco fared at Monday's press conference after the Ravens' big win over the Steelers on Sunday. "He was funny. It wasn't the typical coach-speak. He gave some good insight but didn't give too much away."

Reining in outspoken players such as Lewis, Houshmandzadeh and Terrell Suggs is another battle.

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Houshmandzadeh, who last week used the media to question his role in the Ravens offense, then played the role of hero in Pittsburgh a few days later, is skeptical about the need for media training. "You don't need anyone to prepare you," he said. "I was taught common sense."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said you have to let the players be themselves. "These are grown men," he said. "They're going to say what they think."

And the recorders and video cameras will be ready.

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{b cover design, above, by Jasmine Wiggins} 

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