Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When it all falls apart: Media Relations and the Toronto Maple Leafs

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The picture above provides an uncomfortable, yet accurate image of what it feels like to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Leafs) hockey team.

I'm going off the topic of food in this post, so prepare yourself. This is all about media and public relations, and sports. With that said, I think I may have lost about half of my readers. That's ok, this is still within my professional capacity to address and dammit, it needs addressing.

But before I begin to blab about the latest Leafs media and public relations disaster, I want to wish Steve Keogh, and Ian Meagher, the very best of luck. Why? They are currently working in what has genuinely become a 'knife in the throat' role of having to manage the media and public relations in general for the Maple Leaf Organization.

I will state straight-away that I am a Leafs fan. I care about the team. I have also lost count of the times I wanted to shake my hands of the team and everything that comes with it. But I can't do it. Like most kids who grew up in Ontario, I was raised loving this ridiculous, stupid spectacle of a team, and have seen and supported them through the almost good, to the very, very bad. I bleed Maple Leaf blue.

With that said, I will view the latest craptastic events with a strictly public relations professional eye. I don't know whether to shake my head at the inability of the team pr representatives to handle their clients, or to wonder if this is a brilliantly planned maneuver to create chaos by allowing the players to actually let loose their real personalities to the media and public, making them easier to trade.

This is of course pure speculation from me, but I'm honestly hoping that Mr Meagher and Mr. Keogh have been allowed to at least put together some sort of crisis management (or contingency) plan, to stop the terrifying bloodbath thats occurred between some members of the team, the fans and the media.

If you haven't already seen or heard about the current fiasco, Maple Leaf players Joffrey Lupol, Naseem Kadri, Phil Kessel and team captain Dion Phaneuf and his wife Elisha Cuthbert (an actress who's guilty by association) - or just the entire team in general, have been united or separately involved in media-related incidents that keep public relation reps up at night, and on stress and heart medication during the day.

From fighting on social media with fans, disrepecting fans with blatant on-ice displays of petulant behaviour, to threats of litigation against a Canadian sports network for accidentally spreading rumours, it has been an eye-rolling, side-eye glancing, head-smacking shitshow for fans and team alike - except, maybe for anti-Leaf supporters who are loving the constant stream of crap emanating from the Air Canada Centre. It's akin to watching a train-wreck actually hit another train, and wrecking it too.

Professional sports players are usually coached - sometimes quite thoroughly, on how to behave with the media. That's why whenever players are interviewed, you rarely see a glimpse of their "true" personalities. Why? Because heaven help the professional sports team if the fans eventually realize they might be listening to the musings of an idiot, or idiots.

So, instead you get standard, basic responses and reactions to field questions. You see it all the time. The glance past the reporter whenever as question is asked. The eyes look down and then, maybe, maybe the eyes might look up to the camera, or the reporter, to show you, the fan, that they are genuinely thinking of the answer to the question. I think it was the movie Bull Durham that provided a pretty accurate profile of how athletes should handle the media. The player does his or her job, and the media reps do what they have to do. Everyone is happy. Except...

Media relations is an entirely different beast than general public relations. With public relations, you can 'mostly' control the publics perception of you. The tactics used to get the attention of the media might rely on a few pr tricks, but it's still a want/need relationship. Media are on your side until they aren't, and God help you if you give them any reason to change their mind about you, particularly if it's going to be negative.

The general result of the media disliking you, is a never-ending cycle of negativity that can truly be detrimental to the overall performance of the individual, team and/or organizations that are the targets. Ask yourself if you would be able to function properly, if every day that you woke up you're literally confronted with information that people hate you and the work you do. You need an emotional armour of steel to handle that. Very few people have that armour, the majority do not.

Sadly, that armour of steel is missing with some Maple Leaf players of late. They are not robots and do not have steel plates to cover their emotions. The negativity is getting to them and it shows. Do not tell me the media has no effect on people who perform public jobs. It does, and always will. For public and media relations managers to craft internal memos, asking/begging the team to stay positive and 'on message' isn't enough when it hits this relentless negative stage.

The even sadder part is that regardless of what inane thing the players or even management do next, Leaf Nation is rich - very, very rich, and will continue to make money no matter what happens on or off the ice. The team continues to be the number one money maker in the entire hockey league, despite having an awful losing record this year.

The players are confused, emotional and no doubt psychologically messed up with trade rumours and just completely frustrated. The cracks are evident with their recent head-shaking actions involving the team, the media and fans. Yet, the money continues to roll right in.

If I was in the shoes of Mr. Keogh or Mr. Meagher, I know I'd be up all night in a sweat trying very hard not to panic. Coming up with a plan to mitigate media related damage is tough. Doing that while simultaneously trying to contain the latest fresh batch of shit created by an unruly bunch of people, some of whom could actually kill you with one punch, is downright nasty.

Suggestion? Just breath boys, you'll get through it. And the fans? Well, we'll just continue to pay for it.

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