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.
Dave McKenna, a writer for the Washington City Paper (and a contributor of music reviews to The Post), has seen Swanson at his most aggressive. After the City Paper published McKenna's list of what he termed Snyder's biggest mistakes as Redskins owner in 2002, Swanson disputed the accuracy of each of the 70 items. He spelled out his objections in a lengthy document that included a demand for a series of corrections. The paper stood by McKenna's reporting.
McKenna, who has written critically about Snyder for years, says he found it "bizarre" that "the right-hand man of a billionaire owner of a huge organization [was] using up all these resources to go after a reporter for an alternative weekly."
Like any good advocate, Swanson has tried to put the best possible face on even unpopular policies. After the organization tacked a $5-to-$10 parking surcharge on to tickets for concerts and soccer games at FedEx Field this past summer -- a fee fans paid even if they took the Metro to the events -- Swanson defended such charges by saying they were "common" at other local venues. However, representatives of TicketMaster, the Patriot Center, Verizon Center, and Merriweather Post Pavilion said they don't price tickets this way.
When The Post was preparing to publish the second of two articles about Redskins season-ticket sales in September, Swanson sent out a preemptive press statement about a story few had seen. The article, detailing the team's penchant for suing financially strapped season-ticket holders, would be "unfair to the Redskins," Swanson wrote in his release, because it would "focus on a tiny minority" of fans. The Post's story would not reflect "the enormous efforts" the team has made to avoid taking hundreds of its other customers to court, he added.
The next morning, the newspaper's front page carried a photo of a weeping Pat Hill, a 72-year-old grandmother and lifelong Redskins fan whom the team had sued for defaulting on her season-ticket contract. Within days, the Redskins dropped their efforts to collect a payment from her.
Swanson and other team officials have at times gone public with their complaints about the media via a network of Snyder-owned media properties. ESPN 980, the Snyder-owned sports-talk radio station, carried Swanson's news release about The Post's ticket stories like breaking news, with hosts reading it aloud on the air. In the past, Swanson has also been critical of the paper and its reporters on one of the team's Web sites, Extremeskins.com.Revolving door
Over the years, Swanson's approach to media relations has alienated some of the Redskins' own public relations staff. The team has had seven directors of communications during Snyder's 11-year ownership, a rate that exceeds the turnover in the head coaching job (Swanson has overall responsibility for communications, but the day-to-day promotion is handled by a team PR executive).
One of the former PR directors, John Konoza, lasted three days. His replacement, John Maroon, lasted a year.
"Simply put, I left because we had a difference of philosophy about how to deal with the press," says Maroon, who runs a public-relations agency in the Baltimore area. "I have always believed in the notion of building relationships in a spirit of cooperation. . . . If you think you hold all the cards, then by all means don't bother. But it will come back to bite you."
As one of only two senior managers who've remained with the Redskins throughout Snyder's ownership (the other is Mitch Gershman, a marketing executive), Swanson enjoys an unusual degree of access to Snyder. During training camp, he's often seen driving Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, in the owner's golf cart.
Swanson was also part of a select group of investors, headed by Snyder, that bought control of Six Flags in 2005 (the company filed for bankruptcy-court protection last summer). The same group, known as Red Zone LLC, invested in the Johnny Rockets burger chain and Dick Clark Productions, the producer of such TV shows as "So You Think You Can Dance."
Swanson's colleagues describe him as a constant presence at the team's headquarters at Redskins Park, and in his case, this may be literally true. According to public records, Swanson lists Redskins Park as his home address. One co-worker said Swanson keeps an air mattress at his office to sleep on, and stores some clothes on a rack in his car.
Swanson spent most of his early career with the Associated Press, working in bureaus around the country as a reporter and editor. His last stop was in Boston, where he was senior editor.
People who worked with him at AP recall Swanson as gruff but good-humored, a mentor to younger colleagues.
John King, now an anchor at CNN, fondly recalls working with Swanson at AP. Swanson was his editor when King landed his first big political scoop, Michael Dukakis's naming of Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate in 1988. "He tripled-checked to make sure we were all comfortable with the sourcing, then pushed New York to move it along on the national wire because of the competitive nature of the story," King says. "And then he laughed and said, 'Well, kid, you better be right.' "
Swanson was also there when King got a phone call one day informing him that his father had died suddenly: "He saw me shaking and got me out of there and drove me to my parents' house. He didn't say much, but he didn't have to. He just went from good editor to good person and took me where I needed to go."
Swanson made the transition to public relations in 1990. He joined the first of two Boston PR firms and rose quickly at both. His path crossed Snyder's in 1996, when Snyder was expanding his Bethesda marketing company, Snyder Communications, and bought Swanson's employer, Arnold Communications.
Swanson began handling media and investor relations for Snyder Communications and its gung-ho CEO, then just 31. When the relatively unknown Snyder first made his bid for the Redskins in 1998, he kept Swanson on as his PR rep.
"Karl has been fiercely loyal to Dan, and Dan appreciates that," Maroon says. "He has stuck up for Dan in the press."
"Karl knows less is more," says The Post's Wise. "He does his job by keeping Dan sheltered. He represents the wall between Dan Snyder and his public. Because if the wall weren't there, you might not like what you see."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this article.