After four years of focusing on the Washington Redskins, I planned to explore other topics in this space for a while. At least my "first four" columns should go in a different direction, Mike Wilbon strongly suggested, and he knows a little something about the job.
But after Redskins owner Daniel Snyder filed a libel lawsuit against the Washington City Paper last week, suddenly the Redskins seem like a good place to start.
The lawsuit, filed during Super Bowl week, typifies the kind of self-inflicted public relations crises that have characterized Snyder's 12-year tenure as owner. But what's worse is that, in one step that has nothing to do with football, Snyder has undone whatever goodwill he may have earned since hiring General Manager Bruce Allen and Coach Mike Shanahan more than a year ago.
Most of the fans who buy tickets and jerseys and concessions couldn't care less about the details of libel law. What should concern them is that the organization continues to put itself in a negative light through bad judgment even after Snyder turned the football operations over to Shanahan last January.
Shanahan himself created PR problems with his awkward handling of quarterback Donovan McNabb, whom he traded for in April only to bench by December. The team's third consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East, albeit its first under Shanahan, did little to lessen the scrutiny.
Then last week, on the advice of his senior vice president, Tony Wyllie, Snyder gave fans a new topic to vent about on sports-talk radio and Internet message boards. The Redskins still can't get it together on or off the field no matter whom Snyder brings in to help him.
As a general PR rule, it's never a good idea to bring widespread attention to something you would prefer did not receive widespread attention. The article in question, "The Cranky Redskins Fan's Guide to Dan Snyder," generated little buzz when it was published in November in the alternative weekly City Paper, which has a weekly circulation of less than 74,000. But thanks to a lawsuit filed during Super Bowl week, Internet interest in the City Paper has increased so much that its server reportedly crashed last week.
Snyder, Wyllie, and the team's chief operating officer Dave Donovan contend the City Paper has repeatedly published falsehoods about Snyder, and the story in question was the final straw, prompting Wyllie to suggest Snyder should go to the mattresses.
"I hate to see Dan have to take legal action," Wyllie said. "But when people cross the line and attack someone, and question their character . . . you have to stand for what's right."
Although the City Paper has a relatively small reach circulation-wise, Wyllie said, its content carries weight because it spreads on the Internet. It's true that the story had some readership back in November, but "one of the things that you need to take into account when you're making a decision to go after a newspaper, or any media entity, is how much impact do they really have," said Blake Rhodes, a vice president with Xenophon Strategies, a District-based communications firm specializing in, among other things, crisis communications.
"And the people you're looking at, are they out in the middle of the forest screaming and no one can hear them? Or are they in the middle of downtown and everyone on every street corner can hear them? They [the City Paper] are sort of out in the middle of the forest. And you know what? He [Snyder] has handed them a megaphone so everyone can hear them now."
The Redskins want it made clear the team is not suing the City Paper. Snyder is suing as an individual, which, obviously, is his right. To be sure, there is a distinction.
As the owner of the region's most popular sports franchise, however, Snyder's public persona is linked, in large part, to the Redskins. For better or worse, Snyder is the Redskins and the Redskins are Snyder. Such is life for a formerly hands-on owner of the NFL's second-highest valued franchise on the most recent Forbes magazine list. For theÂº Redskins to suggest otherwise is silly.
After the Redskins' chaotic 2009 season, Snyder aggressively pursued Wyllie to help improve his image, and together, they had made modest progress over the past year. On Wyllie's advice, Snyder granted more interviews than he had in recent years, and by distancing himself from the day-to-day football operations, perceptions of him remained largely unaffected by the McNabb and Albert Haynesworth controversies.
Even once the lawsuit became public, Snyder participated in many interviews with print, television and radio outlets before the Super Bowl in Dallas, discussing a wide range of topics, including the suit. During those interviews, Snyder made the highly unusual move of revealing Wyllie was the force behind the legal action.
Snyder rarely singles out individuals in response to reporters' questions, preferring to reply in umbrella terms like, "it was an organizational decision." In a phone interview Saturday, Snyder again stressed Wyllie "felt very strongly about this . . . and I went with his advice. It was a tough decision for me to agree and go along with this. He said, 'Look, you're going to take a lot of heat temporarily, but you've got to do what's right.' And I said, 'Okay.' I went with my guy."
Wyllie is one of the NFL's most accomplished PR officials. He was the league's youngest director when he joined the Tennessee Oilers in 1998. Wyllie and his staff earned the Pete Rozelle Award, presented annually by the Pro Football Writers of America to the league's top PR staff, a total of five times, including thrice with the Houston Texans. He also has the ear of other top league officials.
But in this case, Wyllie has overreached, negating whatever gains he may have made as part of his plan for Snyder. Regardless of whether the City Paper settles (it continues to stand behind its reporting) or Snyder prevails in a court of law, he already has lost in the court of public opinion.