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As a communication professional, I spend a good deal of time working with clients on the rationale and content of their communication. Why do they want to communicate? What are they trying to achieve? Who are they trying to reach? And what should they say or show to convey the right messages and reactions? Too often the how – or the delivery tactics – are an after-thought. In fact, many clients simply want to do what they’ve always done, and are reluctant to explore new platforms or formats. The NHL offers a good reminder of how a smart tactical strategy can pay dividends.

The NHL’s new head of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, has introduced an innovative “show and tell” video strategy to support the league’s aggressive campaign against dangerous hits. In past years, decisions on dirty hits and related penalties were unpredictable and delivered in opaque, often belated statements. Not surprisingly, many players and pundits complained (and presumably many referees were left equally perplexed and frustrated.) Notwithstanding the merit of their decisions, the league didn’t successfully argue their case. Shanahan entered the fray with the fearless purpose he used as a tough power forward. In the first weeks of his tenure, Shanahan assessed a number of fines and penalties and argued strongly against what he saw as dangerous, illegal hits. ┬áBut unlike his far more circumspect predecessors, Shanahan reached out directly to players and used game videos and footage of the infractions to make his case. In one video, in response to critics shouting that he’s taking the hitting out of the game, Shanahan explicitly shows a series of clean hits, and explains how those differ from others that resulted in penalties. The video campaign is supported by a healthy menu of interviews, TV appearances and fan events. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Shanahan is a former player with a stellar pedigree as a tough, fair competitor.

The reaction of hockey fans and players, at least anecdotally, has been dramatic and positive. Players now understand the reasons for the discipline, and the nuances that justify different fines for apparently similar infractions. Some players still disagree with the fines and suspensions, of course, but there is much more clarity about the reasons behind the league actions.

The lesson here is two-fold. This is a good reminder that how you present information can make a big difference in how it’s received. Nothing new there. But the NHL also shows us you don’t have to use cutting-edge social platforms to have an impact. Straight talk. Some replay footage. A user-friendly website. A consistent message.

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