Lessons from Miami: Ugly, hateful bullying is just wrong. Why is there still any debate?

Dolphins' Incognito and MartinThe reputational morass that is the Miami Dolphins’ workplace harassment scandal took several more turns for the worse when… Jonathan Martin alleged that not only had he endured grotesque and racist threats and other abuse from teammate Richie Incognito but also a “vicious physical attack” from an as-yet-unnamed teammate… reports surfaced that the Dolphins coaching staff allegedly told Incognito (someone with quite a well-earned reputation over the years for dirty play, thuggery and a short, wicked temper) to “toughen up” Martin… a story gained traction that the Dolphin’s General Manager had responded to Martin’s attorney (who had complained of the abuse Martin was enduring) that the player should “punch” Incognito as a way of standing up to the bully… and numerous Dolphins spoke out publicly in defense of Incognito, which speaks volumes for the sorry state of the Dolphins culture accepting depraved bullying and intimidation as normal behavior.

And with other players and commentators from around the league blaming Martin for taking the abuse  and echoing the sentiment that this type of behavior is just what goes on in NFL locker rooms, it is clear that the League needs to act swiftly and boldly, making it absolutely clear that it has zero tolerance for behaviors that anywhere else would be universally understood as the very definition of a hostile workplace.

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In a seemingly unrelated matter, the long-suffering Chicago Cubs baseball team introduced Rick Reneteria as the club’s new manager. Perhaps Renteria will help end the fabled curse haunting the club; perhaps he will be yet another Cubs failure. But what we do know is he was chosen for the role not only for his knowledge of the game but for his leadership skills. According to the Chicago TribuneCubs President Theo Epstein raved about Renteria’s baseball intellect, his communication skills and his reputation. “Communication skills” refers not only to the fact that Renteria is bilingual (important as the club has several young, talented Latin players who need careful development and nurturing) but that he speaks clearly and directly. He is especially big on “accountability” and every player on the club will understand the concept soon enough.

What are the lessons from all this that transcend the sports world?

Leaders lead. They make it clear what their values are; they live by them and they make sure their people live by them, too. They don’t delegate to subordinates with poor judgment and uncontrollable tempers the discipline or development of others. Leaders make themselves clearly understood. They know actions speak louder than words, but that words matter, too.

Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins have emerged as the number one contender…for the not-so-coveted 2013 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year.

Just how is Lebron humbled by all this?

 

Twenty-five-year-old Lebron James told the waiting world that he had found “the process humbling.” (The process of having six billionaire owners fawn all over him, practically begging James to accept their offers of better than a hundred million dollars to play basketball for them; followed by an hour-long television broadcast to announce The Decision.) He repeated the “humbling” phrase to ABC’s Robin Roberts and presumably other interviews as well. Earlier this year, Lebron said he was “humbled” to become only the second player in NBA history to receive two MVP awards at the age of 25.

It brings to mind President Obama telling us he was “humbled” to be given the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year into his presidency. When saying things like that, Obama has a way of jutting his jaw forward and up in body language that says anything but humility.

So what is this “new humility”? It seems to be the de rigueur words to mouth when someone young and relatively inexperienced ascends to the rare air of a splendid summit few will ever reach. It’s anything but humbling.

Lebron James is an incredible player who has behaved admirably throughout his career. I hope to see him win a championship or two. But that won’t be a humbling experience either.

- Jon Harmon

Tiger Woods’ stonewalling lets rumors fester

A quick response and as much transparency as possible are prime articles of faith among crisis managers. Get any damaging news out quickly and completely so you can move on. Letting speculation fester is never a good strategy.

So what are Tiger Woods and his handlers thinking by refusing to cooperate with the police and releasing only cryptic and defensive statements to the public following his late-night collision with a fire hydrant and his neighbor’s tree last Friday? The low-speed collision (the SUV’s airbags did not deploy)accident left Woods unconscious. By the time police arrived, Woods’ wife had pulled him from the SUV, reportedly using one of his golf clubs to smash out a rear window, evidently to unlock the vehicle’s doors.

 

Woods is extremely disciplined in how he speaks to the media and is used to being able to control the public conversation to a greater extent than just about any highly visible athlete or celebrity. So his natural instinct is to go radio silent.

But it isn’t realistic to expect the mass media and the blogosphere to simply go away. In the absence of anything resembling complete disclosure, the rumor mill runs rampant. Quite simply, Tiger’s stone-walling leads reasonable people to conclude that he’s hiding something. Canceling appearances in his own golf tournament and likely all other tournaments the rest of the year will not quiet interest in Tigers’ strange behavior.

Woods is an incredible athlete with legions of loyal fans. He’s extremely likable and perhaps the only flaw in his public persona is a somewhat cold exterior that comes with his unrivaled mental discipline.

Odds are that the public will learn sooner or later whatever circumstances surrounded the accident Tiger wishes we’d all forget. Better to get it out and move on.

- Jon Harmon

Own up to your company identity when joining in an on-line conversation

For public relations people looking to stick your toes in the ocean of consumer-generated media: remember that participating in the blogosphere requires full disclosure.

An active chatboard, blog or Twitter discussion centered around your product or company, or at least your industry, might benefit from the perspective of someone knowledgeable. Chances are good you have something meaningful to add to the conversation. But tread lightly, introducing yourself candidly as a spokesperson for your company. Don't get argumentative and certainly don't belittle those who you don't agree with.

In other words, don't follow the example of Raymond Ridder, PR Director for the Golden State Warriors, who anonymously posted pro-management comments on a chatboard that had gone negative on those running the Warriors.

Ridder follows in the disgraced footsteps on Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and the "Wal-Marting Across America" floggers. Being outed as an insider posing as an outsider leads to instant vilification — as identity transparency is a crucial expectation of ethical behavior in an on-line community.

Ridder threw ethics out the window when he noticed Warriors fan site WarriorWorld.net going starkly negative after a management conference call. So he logged onto the site as "FlunksterDude" and tried to steer things to the positive. Check out this story on CNET to understand why that didn't work.

Ridder is taking full responsibility for his actions. But he doesn't yet understand that he did anything wrong. This well-stated excerpt from fansite SportsRubbish makes clear what was wrong — and what the implications are for the PR community:

There unfortunately are plenty of P.R. “professionals” who think it is perfectly acceptable to pose as a regular fan to get their message out. Keep this in mind any time you read, well, anything online. If something is too positive or too negative, it quite possibly could either be that company or a rival making that post.

There is nothing wrong with team executives interacting with fans and taking the pulse of fan sentiment. If they do want to post on a team message board like Warriors World, they should just be up front about it, rather then attempting to hide behind anonymity.

- Jon Harmon

 

If You’re Sincere, You’re Still Sorry Three Years Later

Another example of how not to talk to the media … if you’re a newly traded athlete best known for a violent mugging of another player that resulted in a horrific, life-threatening injury.

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Before Todd Bertuzzi had even arrived in Detroit after a trade the night before, he spoke by phone to Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. Albom asked him about the infamous incident in 2004 when Bertuzzi skated up behind Colorado rookie forward Steve Moore and attempted to bait him into a fight in obvious retaliation for a brutal cheap-shot punch Moore had delivered three weeks earlier to one of Bertuzzi’s teammates. Moore broke an unwritten hockey code of manhood by ignoring Bertuzzi and continued to skate up the ice. So Bertuzzi, in furious pursuit, unleashed a brutal sucker punch to the back of Moore’s head. Instantly knocked unconscious, Moore’s limp body was pounded into the ice by Bertuzzi. Then Bertuzzi fell on top of the downed player and proceeded to punch the helpless body. Not exactly a shining example of sportsmanship, even in the physical sport of ice hockey.

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Moore was carted from the arena on a stretcher with three broken vertebrae in his neck.   

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The shocking brutality of the incident, replayed endlessly on video, created a furor. For a while it looked like Bertuzzi would face criminal charges. As the magnitude of the damage he had wrought set in, Bertuzzi  held a tearful press conference and apologized to Moore and his teammates and family. By all accounts, Bertuzzi was sincere in his regret and genuinely remorseful.

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Fast forward three years: Bertuzzi has been traded to the Detroit Red Wings and is asked about the incident for the umpteen millionth time: Does the notoriety bother him? His response:

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“There’s nothing you can really do. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a forgotten thing. It’s three years ago. And you would think that people would let it go. But there’s always people in cities that want to hold on and want to criticize and bash you…. It’s something I deal with.”

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Uhh … Todd, remember that it was you who was the goon who broke a young man’s neck, ending his career and very nearly killing him. You sound like you think you are the victim here. Pardon us if we need to throw up.

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Perhaps what you meant to say was:

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“I think about that night all the time. I never intended to injure Steve Moore but lost control in the moment. I’ve apologized to him and to his family, and I regret the pain I caused them. I wish I could undo it all but I can’t. So I’d prefer to talk about this season as I look ahead to the playoffs with my new team.”

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One more thing, Todd. Make sure you mean it.

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Lesson for corporate executives: if, God forbid, your company is responsible for a human tragedy, saying you’re sorry once isn’t enough. Even if you get tired of hearing the question, remember the victim(s). (Hint: It’s not you.). There is no statute of limitations on sincere sorrow.

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- Jon Harmon

Very Super Prediction: English Language Will Be Butchered

With the kickoff of the Super Bowl only hours away, it’s time for fearless predictions of the perfectly obvious. And the biggest lock of them all is that throughout the game, and most certainly in the post-game interviews, the English language will be sacked repeatedly by people who have spoken this language their whole lives and allegedly graduated from respected institutions of higher learning.

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If butchered grammar grates on your inner ear like fingernails strafing a blackboard, beware: The jocktocracy charged with filling the airwaves surely will:

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o       Use “that” when they mean “who.” It’s so simple, guys; my kids have heard it a thousand times from me: “People are WHOs; things are THATs.”
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o       Add "very" to adjectives that already are superlatives, as in “that very spectacular kickoff return.” Or to words that make no sense being intensified, as in “their very mediocre performance.” (In researching this little post, I Googled “very mediocre” and discovered a new low in jock talk – Minnesota sports website Channel 4000 describing one of the NFL’s divisions as “very, very mediocre.”)

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o       Use that peculiar jock talk construction when referring to a hypothetical outcome that didn’t transpire. “If my offensive line doesn’t block for me on that third down play, I don’t complete the pass,” the QB will say, referring to a past event in the present tense. "If I don’t set my alarm clock last night, I sleep through the kickoff and cost my team big-time."

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- Jon Harmon

A Few PR Disasters … and Three Worthy Force for Good People of the Year

It’s time for Force for Good’s take on the “of the Year” awards.

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First up, I have to agree with PRWeek’s pick for “2006 PR Disaster of the Year” – the Hewlett Packard spy scandal. Hard not to pick this hair-brained scheme and the bad soap opera that followed, especially considering the central role that PR didn’t play because of its exclusion from HP’s executive table (a fact first disclosed on this blog).

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HP had some very worthy competition for dishonor as ’06 gave us such PR debacles as Edelman-Wal-Mart’s flogging across America … offensive implosions by Mel Gibson and Michael “Kramer” Richards … the clumsy way the White House handled Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of his hunting buddy (among other less-than-stellar moments from the White House) … the demotion of Pluto from planetary status … Fox’s how-could anybody-think-this-was-a-good-idea deal for a TV special on O.J. Simpson’s grossly pathetic “If I Did It” book … and, finally, Terrell Owens’ “publicist” Kim Etheridge’s confrontational, gum-chewing news conference where she explained that T.O. had not, in fact, attempted suicide, citing “25 million reasons why he should be alive” (alluding to the dollar-value of his contract with the Dallas Cowboys – I  don’t think Kim is going to be recruited anytime soon by MasterCard for a “Priceless” commercial).

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Fun as it is to ridicule the deserving, it is better to celebrate the positively inspirational moments of the year. Here are three worthy winners of the Force for Good People of the Year 2006:

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o       Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, two San Francisco ChronicleBonds_book_authors_2 sports journalists and the authors of the well-researched book “Game of Shadows” that blew the lid once and for all on Barry Bond’s steroid use. Sentenced to jail time when they refused to reveal their sources to a Grand Jury, Williams (left) and Fainaru-Wada stood their ground and will be forever remembered favorably for their principled stand. Anyone who has provided delicate information on background should thank these two for reminding all journalists of their profession’s code of honor to not burn their sources.

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o       Retired Dallas Cowboy Everson Walls for donating a kidney 20061222_055208_1222wallssprings_400 to former teammate Ron Springs (left, with Walls), who has diabetes and has been undergoing dialysis to get ready for surgery. Not that this courageously selfless action really has anything to do with communications; call this one: “Actions speak louder than words.”

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o       The Amish people of Nickel Mines, Pa. After a deranged milkman shot ten young Amish 061002_amish_hmed_2p_hmedium_5 girls in a one-room schoolhouse, killing five, and then killed himself, the families of the victims reacted in a manner most unexpected (to us anyway): Within hours, they not only expressed forgiveness of the killer, but reached out to his widow and children, bringing them food. Their sincere and heartfelt expression of forgiveness came through loud in clear in the few interviews they gave and opened for us a bit of a window into the simple goodness in their lives.

- Jon Harmon

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