Karl Swanson's tough job: Public relations guru for Redskins owner Dan Snyder

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's been that kind of season for the Redskins: Coaching mayhem and heartbreaking play on the field, outrage over ticket policies and banned signs off of it. Fans are at the edge of despair or revolt, and have been letting owner Daniel M. Snyder know it.

At times like these, Snyder counts on a trusted lieutenant named Karl Swanson.

As Snyder's self-described public-relations "henchman," Swanson, 59, has been tending to Snyder's image for at least a dozen years. When controversy calls -- as it repeatedly has since Snyder became one of the Washington area's most prominent citizens -- Swanson is close behind, ready to tell the boss's side of the story.

Swanson has spoken for Snyder when Native Americans have challenged the team's name as racist; when the owner's wife, Tanya, was called to court to testify in a lawsuit filed by a former nanny for allegedly unpaid wages (the nanny won nearly $45,000 in back pay in 2007); when controversies have raged about ticket and concession prices, parking at FedEx Field and tailgating restrictions.

At times, Swanson has literally run interference for his employer. When journalists have sought comment from the Redskins owner in public, the linebacker-size Swanson has often gotten in front of the media mob, shielding his boss from questions.

Swanson is Snyder's proxy because Snyder rarely speaks for himself. The team owner says he doesn't grant interviews during the regular season, and rarely does so at other times.

While Swanson has stayed out of the spotlight, a number of individuals associated with the team last week began to respond to the mounting criticism of the team's owner. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who had stopped talking to reporters, broke his silence to defend Snyder, calling critical comments by former Redskin John Riggins "vicious." Albert Haynesworth, the team's $100 million defensive lineman, and head coach Jim Zorn also attested to Snyder's compassion and zeal to win. Snyder himself briefly ended his self-imposed interview embargo to express his disappointment in the team's play.

Meanwhile, Chief Operating Officer David Donovan stepped up his rebuke of the news media, including The Post. He criticized the "relentless negative coverage" of the team.

By keeping the media at arm's length for so long, Snyder and Swanson have missed the opportunity to craft a different, better image, for the owner and his team, says Jason Maloni, a crisis communications specialist in Washington. "I'm quite certain that Dan Snyder is not happy just selling tickets," says Maloni, whose firm, Levick Strategic Communications, represents athletes, celebrities and the Snyder-controlled Six Flags amusement park chain. "He wants to win Super Bowls. He is particularly passionate about his team. For whatever reason, he has not been able to open up that window on himself and show people that he's a fan who cares deeply about his team."

Dana Perino, who was President George W. Bush's press secretary when Bush was deeply unpopular, says the Redskins organization "certainly [isn't] winning friends and influencing people at the moment, and [the team's] losing season adds insult to injury. Sometimes the only way to stop bad press is to get out of your own way and to, well, just stop it."

Swanson declined to do his own public relations for this story. He turned down multiple requests for an interview, saying: "Thank you, but the Redskins organization is focused on our players and coaches, especially at this time of year."

A protective instinct

Journalists and others who've worked with Swanson praise his personal skills -- "Karl has been extremely congenial and pleasant in most of our conversations," says Mike Wise, a Post sports columnist -- but they also say he can be tough, pushing back hard against reporters deemed unsupportive or unfair to the owner and his team.

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