Super Bowl Sunday and Dave is trying to be relevant with a football tie in. It’s about the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder. A Super Bowl Champion, no doubt. Certainly not his team since he’s owned it. But Snyder himself is a World Champion. Dan Snyder reigns supreme when it comes to uniting an entire city and region against you. And his most recent moves in the fields of public relations and image management give strong indication that the trophy should be Dan’s to keep.
Anyone who has heard me speak in recent years, or ever dealt regularly with Dave Statter the TV reporter, probably knows my views on dealing with a news organization that has published negative stories about you or your organization. I have a simple message: If you are going to complain about news coverage, complain about the facts of the story. Make sure it isn’t really just the bruised ego or hurt feelings of you or your boss doing the talking. Trust me, it’s good advice.
I don’t know how much play this is getting beyond the Beltway, but here in Washington over the last few days you can’t go a couple of minutes without reading or hearing another negative assessment of Dan Snyder. These darts lobbed at Snyder are not about the dismal showing of Washington’s football team. Instead it’s about one of the worst examples of how to deal with negative news that we’ve witnessed in a long time. Pull up a seat, there’s a lot to learn from this master of turning a terrible public image into a horrendous one.
It’s as if Snyder purposely pasted “kick me” signs all over his body. Right now, everyone is obliging and kicking him hard. There’s no end in sight. Often, when a public figure is beaten down like this, at some point they might become a sympathetic figure. I don’t see that happening here. Just read the hundreds of comments attached to the articles I’ve linked to and you will see what I mean.
This latest chapter started on November 19 when Washington City Paper’s Dave McKenna wrote an article called The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder. McKenna is a talented sports columnist who has never been afraid to question authority and the status quo. Snyder’s antics and ethics have long been a favorite topic of McKenna’s.
But the free, alternative paper McKenna works for is not what you would call a major player in the Washington media world. Certainly not something a powerful businessman like Snyder needs to worry about. It’s as if McKenna has been constantly barking away like a wiener dog at the feet of a giant and poweful Great Dane (I would have used Clifford the Big Red Dog here, but comparing Snyder to Clifford might ruin the animated canine’s image for generations of children). This article caused Snyder to do more than just shake off the tiny nuisance and move on. Suddenly Dan Snyder saw McKenna as a pit bull that needed to be euthanized.
Snyder’s plan for handling this was about as subtle and well thought out as the much publicized Redskins’ stadium policy of October and November 2009. That one had security people trashing fan’s signs brought to Fed Ex Field because Dan’s feelings were hurt by a very strong anti-Snyder sentiment following a decade of impulsive, bone head moves in running the team. Management tried unsuccessfully to get the public to swallow the company line that the signs were suddenly a safety issue.
I covered that story and talked to legendary DC sports PR guy Charlie Brotman. Charlie, one of the nicest guys around, and rarely publicly critical of anyone, had some advice for Snyder. Essentially, Charlie told Dan to stop wasting his time by trying to control what people think. These actions were further destroying Syder’s reputation with the public. Instead, Charlie urged Snyder to start reaching out and connecting with the fans. Pretty solid advice.
If it’s advice Dan Snyder heard, he ignored or forgot it by November 2010 when he came up with the plan to deal with McKenna. Instead of contacting the columnist or his editor about what Snyder thought were great factual errors, Dan, always the businessman, went right for the money. The general counsel and COO for the Redskins, David Donovan, wrote a letter to the investment company that owns the parent company that owns the Washington City Paper. Besides listing all of the ways McKenna’s article harmed Snyder, the letter made clear what damage would come to Atalaya Capital Management if this wasn’t dealt with to the satisfaction of the Redskins owner. And it is this portion of the letter, that stands heads above the rest of the Snyder PR circus, and has Washington abuzz. Here it is:
Dan Snyder’s public relations policy may not be a smart one, but it sure gets high marks for consistency. Just like destroying the fan’s signs when they had bad things to say about Dan, Snyder threatens to crush the news media. And this threat to sue has now become reality, again making headlines.
There are a lot more angles to this story and details that we don’t have time to cover here. But there is currently no shortage of articles to read and videos to view on the topic where you can learn more. Let me suggest a few, starting with the response by Washington City Paper publisher Amy Austin.
At the top of this page you will find a video with commentary by WUSA9.com’s sports director Brett Haber (now followed up with an online ”1st Amendment Petition” urging Snyder to drop the suit).
The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, who acknowledges his friendship with Dave McKenna, looks at the substance of the claims of factual error in the original article (he doesn’t find much). Steinberg also documents Snyder’s sudden willingness to talk with the news media and new found “candor” while in Dallas for the Super Bowl. The Huffington Post says Friday’s charm offensive by Snyder is way too late.
But the best thing to read, by far, is the open letter to Snyder by the brilliant Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten. Rather than detract from any of this hilarious take by characterizing or paraphrasing what Weingarten has to say, trust me and just read it. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you. (Weingarten chats with his fans about the column.)
So, why have I spent all of this time on a blog dedicated to fire and EMS talking about the owner of a football team? Because, whether it’s Dan Snyder and the National Football League or a one pumper fire department in the middle of Snyderville, USA (my apologies to the folks of Snyderville, Utah) your image and how you tend to it matters. The mistakes Dan Snyder continually makes on the large scale are often made on the small scale by fire and EMS departments and the people who run them.
These are basic errors. Ones that any crisis management firm or good PR person or PIO would try to avoid. I’m sure Dan Snyder can afford the best in the business. It’s obvious that, like a few public safety bosses I’ve met through the years, Snyder and his ego think they know far better than the PR pros.
Dan Snyder and the Redskins made sure that a relatively little read article blasting the owner got enormous play, not just in Washington, but around the world. So much so that the City Paper’s server crashed on Wednesday. How often have I cautioned about turning a simple one day story into something much bigger?
Remember this: When your public relations policy is based on the fragile ego of a Dan Snyder, a fire chief or a mayor, you will lose every time.
If the reporter or columnist significantly gets the facts wrong, absolutely get out and fix that with the correct facts. This is something quite important in the digital age where information, accurate or inaccurate, is rapidly repeated over and over again on numerous sites. During a radio interview on Thursday, the Redskins COO David Donovan even acknowledged that very point in justifying their offensive against the City Paper saying, “In the Internet age, when something gets published, and it gets linked to and linked to and linked to — and you can go around the Internet and see the number of times people have linked to that column from the November City Paper.” But as the Post’s Dan Steinberg points out, that article is now getting a hell of a lot more links than it did originally (including now on the ever popular STATter911.com) and no one is really correcting any facts.
If the goal is to set the record straight, wouldn’t a better tactic have been to take the Washington City Paper up on its offer to get the facts out in a Dan Snyder penned guest column?
If it’s the opinion of a columnist you want to change, that isn’t going to happen by heavy handed, thuggish threats (which in Snyder’s case illustrates McKenna’s thoughts about the owner much better than what the sports columnist wrote in the first place).
Settling a score by trying to get a reporter or columnist fired just to keep the boss happy rarely works (again, you better have some facts to back it up). The same goes for the often used tactic of freezing out or not talking to a reporter who doesn’t play the way you want them to. All you will do is ensure your message isn’t heard with the coverage provided by that publication.
The short version of the response from Snyder and the Redskins is to argue that McKenna is out to get Snyder, that McKenna attacked Snyder’s wife, a breast cancer survivor and spokeswoman (an unfounded claim against McKenna that absolutely no one can sense of), and that a City Paper picture of Snyder as the devil is antisemitic.
Let me be so bold as to offer Dan Snyder, or even a fire or EMS chief who may be equally as sensitive, a different way to go. You’ve dug yourself a big hole that you are trying desperately to get out of. You have failed to provide any shoring and the walls are coming in. Stop burying yourself further by attacking the news media with nothing to really back it up except your hurt feelings. Ditch the ego. Write an open letter to the public and have a press conference telling everyone you’ve made lots of mistakes through the years, but this one tops them all. Take a lesson from Gene Weingarten and do this with a sense of humor. Make sure that sense of humor is directed at you. Beg for the public’s mercy, telling them you have learned your lesson and will do better in the future. Go the Hollywood route and tell everyone you will be in rehab for a few months. Then find a Betty Ford type clinic for egoholics and control freaks. You will know you have the right building because the doorway is extra tall and wide to enable those oversized heads and egos to enter.
In short, heed the words of my friend and former colleague Brett Haber, “The truth that Snyder fails to grasp is that the only way to stop being portrayed as such an unlikable figure — is to stop acting like one.”
Washington Post’s Paul Farhi on Dan Snyder’s defense of the lawsuit (make sure you read the comments)