Damage Control Lesson from Heidi Watney
It's been a rough couple of weeks if you're a die-hard Red Sox fan. The team's September collapse has been widely reported -- gleefully reported in markets that hate the Sox and the succession of victories of Boston sports teams in general in recent years. Fans feel angry, frustrated and betrayed. They want answers to what happened, why did it happen, and what is the management of the team going to do about it?
That kind of pent up interest in the drama surrounding the team and the front office is media gold, especially for sports commentators and heavy users of social networks like Twitter. And it has gotten very ugly very fast, starting with the announcement of the departure of manager Terry Francona (did he jump or was he pushed? or both?), the defection of GM Theo Epstein for the Chicago Cubs (is he leaving a sinking ship because it can't be repaired?) and now the plethora of rumors and mud-slinging about pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse on their off days instead of supporting their teammates -- pitchers who were not even delivering a good pitching performance on their designated starts. Management has held press conferences to face the media and has gone on the radio during the drive time period to address questions, but the answers have been canned and have not quelled the anger or dispelled the rumors.
This morning on my way to work I heard a repeat broadcast of NESN reporter Heidi Watney's on air interview with the 98.5 Sports Hub hosts yesterday about the entire situation. Red Sox management could take a lesson from this reporter's handling of the swirling ugliness that is now hitting local media like Watney. NESN's policy is not to comment on rumors and speculation, she explained, but Watney felt compelled to send this Tweet when a false rumor linking her to a Red Sox player was resurfacing as part of the mud-slinging against Red Sox media, as well as the team itself and its management:
"[98.5's Michael] Felger is completely off base on just about everything he is saying. Ridiculous and irresponsible."
She then called in to that station's morning show to clear the air and express her views. As a long-time PR consultant, I think she did a good job of damage control that others can learn from.
(1) She directly addressed the rumor about herself and said there was no truth to it. It is something that has been floating around for a few years (I remember hearing it myself) and the reason she felt compelled to speak out was to put it aside once and for all. She also talked about how difficult it is for a female reporter covering baseball in this town. She wasn't whining. She just acknowledged the difficulty and how she has had to work against the stereotype.
(2) Watney directly dispelled a rumor that has been circulating about discontent between teammates and Carl Crawford. Crawford had stopped talking with the media during the final weeks of the season. When she asked him who reporters should talk to if players like him won't answer questions, he suggested they address the team's captain, Jason Varitek, as a spokesperson. It was as simple as that, but got blown out of proportion as some grudge between the left fielder and the veteran team captain and the team in general.
(3) She was clear and concise about the current atmosphere of ugliness and directly asked the media and the fans to stop the insanity.
“Sometimes I feel like, in this town, if a rumor gets said enough, people just automatically believe it’s gospel.”
“I know that there were things that were going on in that clubhouse, obviously in this fallout, they have a lot of things that they need to get fixed. But I personally don’t believe attacking anyone’s character, whether its Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, Josh Beckett or John Lackey… attacking anyone’s character is not going to make this team better.”
It was well said. Interestingly, one of the two interviewers agreed with this sentiment and said he's now "on Team Heidi." That actually underscores the type of atmosphere that Watney is decrying. We have a "Survivor" mentality of reporting on stories like this. The fans want to know what happened and who is responsible, but they seem to need to paint some participants in the story as the good guys and others as the bad guys. We seem to have forgotten that there are shades of grey and that scrupulously assigning blame will not solve the fundamental problem of a team that collapsed. Is there blame? Absolutely. Will playing this out in the media solve it or make any of us fans feel better? Not really.
Many of us shell out big dollars for tickets, branded clothing, bricks and everything else that is constantly marketed to Red Sox Nation members. What we are expecting from Red Sox management is an honest assessment, a high level, of what needs to be fixed – and will be fixed – before Spring Training rolls around. And until that essential truth is delivered directly to the fan base by the people who have the real information, this blood-letting will continue. And the damage will continue to pile up.
Take a lesson from your young reporter, Red Sox management. Watney used #guysneedtostepup as a hash tag in some frustrated tweets late in the Red Sox season. It's time for management to truly step up to the microphone and take control of the mess.