A Lesson in Connecting and Controlling the Message: Theo's Farewell to Red Sox Nation
Spurred by a combination of their tragic loser past and their vindicating championships in 2004 and 2007, that following has grown beyond New England into a "Red Sox Nation" with fan(atic)s across the country and even the world. That is why the Red Sox historic collapse this year -- the startling revelations about drinking during games, team disharmony, and subsequent departures of its manager and general manager -- have been big news. The team has been lambasted by the media and the fans, and deservedly so.
This week, following much speculation, Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, resigned to become the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. How he handled this provides many lessons in crisis communication and managing executive departures.
The Importance of Strategic Communications
From the day he was hired at age 28 to be the youngest general manager ever, Theo displayed an ability to communicate that was well beyond his years, an understanding and appreciation of how the media works, and the importance of controlling the message. How he and the Red Sox communicated his departure this week are further evidence of an individual that "gets" the importance of strategic communications.
Back in August, prior to the collapse, stories began appearing speculating that Epstein was a serious candidate to take over the Cubs general manager position. Although no official denial was issued at the time regarding this speculation, in hindsight, it seems pretty clear that the wheels were already in motion for him to leave. The collapse just made sure it happened this year rather then the next when his contract would have been up.
Let's take a look at how Theo handled the communications around this thorny problem:
- At the press conference where it was announced that Manager Tito Francona would be leaving the Red Sox, Theo did everything he could to place the blame on himself. This unofficially set the stage for his leaving. This was a good lesson in admitting when things have gone wrong. Too often companies and executives try to deny or obfuscate what is pretty obvious. Sometimes it's best to proactively take the medicine.
- Next, Theo and the Red Sox caught a break. During the post season, Major League Baseball does not like teams to divert attention away from the games with announcements. This enabled Theo and the team to lay low as they hammered out the details of his departure.
- Theo's next move was to place and ad in the Boston Globe through which he directly addressed the Red Sox Nation. With no media middleman, he connected with fans and focused on sharing all the good memories he wanted them to remember. He also began to position his eventual replacement, Ben Cherrington, citing him for his hard work and their great relationship.
- Theo then took it a step further with his Boston Globe Op Ed piece, in which he layed out his reasoning for leaving and once again thanked the fans. For me, Theo's "Farewell, Red Sox Nation" offers a great blueprint for addressing a negative situation and handling an executive transition. Theo covers all the bases with his letter:
- Connected with fans on a very core level -- as a long time Red Sox fan.
- Communicated his decision to leave and owned up to his mistakes.
- Provided a reason for leaving and explained that the September collapse was not the only thing behind his decision.
- Talked about his new role with the Cubs and related it to the Red Sox situation when he first joined. The message: "the Cubs organization and fans are what we used to be. We can identify with that."
- Explained how difficult the decision to leave the Red Sox was -- citing family, friends, his charitable foundation and the privilege to have had his dream job for 10 years. The message: "this decision wasn't rash and not as easy as some may think."
- Touched on the highlights of his time with the Red Sox. The message: "lets not let the collapse overshadow the fun and success we've had and what has been built."
- Addressed the elephant in the room -- the September collapse -- saying that they let the fans down, and although it was a collective failure of the entire organization, he was ultimately responsible as the general manager. Something leaders must do.
- Focused on what he sees as a bright future and an opportunity for everyone to re-dedicate themselves and raise standards. He told us that Ben Cherington is "infinitely more prepared than I was" to take over the GM position; that the ball club is still in great shape in terms of talent and baseball operations; that the ownership is a model and will do the right things; and that the Red Sox Nation will be more than fine. The message: "last month was terrible, but we're better off than you might think and in 2012 hope springs eternal as with every new season."
Now, there are many who are still critical of the entire situation and process. For the most ardent of fans, forgiveness takes time. But for me, Theo was a central figure in changing the fortunes of the Red Sox Nation, and he handled his departure with skill and professionalism.
We can all thank him for that and learn from it.