By Dennis Culloton, President and CEO
I own up to being a die-hard Cubs fan–and for Cubs fans, die-hard is the right posture. I watched the ’69 Cubs collapse while sitting on my father’s lap. As it happens, children have been watching the Cubs collapse for 107 years and seeing their father’s first yell at the newspaper, then the radio, later the TV and more recently, perhaps, their smart phones. If we wait any longer, kids will be watching their Dads yell at the satellites beaming the Cubs games into chips embedded in our heads.
Despite the heartbreak, like tens of thousands of other similarly afflicted members of Cubs Nation, being a Cubs fan has been my commitment and a parable for how to live a life of sacrifice and self-denial for joy in the afterlife. It’s hard not to view everything in the prism of Cubs baseball–including crisis communications strategy.
(Full disclosure, before I gush on, we are very proud that the Ricketts family has been a longstanding client and they are building a Cubs team poised to win a World Series and to have sustained success).
For public relations professionals, there has been a tremendous revelation in the brilliant addition of Joe Maddon as Cubs manager. He has a fabulous track record as a manager and it is no coincidence he is a terrific communicator. As we work to innovate and advise our clients–as communications strategists, lawyers or consultants– there is much to learn from Joe.
Every new Cubs manager has grappled with the question of “The Billy Goat curse”–the story of Sam Sianis of the Billy Goat Tavern fame putting a curse on the Cubs after he was banned from bringing his live goat into the ballpark in 1945—the last year the Cubs appeared in a World Series.
Maddon shot down the curse like it was a clay pigeon. “I don’t vibrate on that frequency.”
With that, his team and thousands of fans put their focus on the future. As crisis managers, it’s important not to waste time dwelling on the mistakes of the past but to craft plans to move forward.
“Embrace the Target”
At his introductory press conference as Cubs manager, Maddon told a roomful of sports writers that despite the team coming off an 89-loss season he was going to talk about going to the World Series with his team.
“For me, I’m going to be talking playoffs next year,” Maddon said, seriously. “(If not), why even report? I’m going to talk playoffs and talk World Series. And I believe it.”
He promised he would always preach: “don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.” This mantra would remind the players why they started playing baseball as kids. His only request “Respect 90”–the bumper-sticker slogan to remind players to run out every hit for the full 90 feet from home base to first.
Going into this season, baseball experts and Las Vegas said the Cubs were favorites to win the World Series. Maddon confronted it head on and launched into the 2016 campaign ready to talk about his audacious goal so much so that players and fans became inculcated with the new prayer–and the new T-shirts.
“My main point of focus is to embrace the target,” Maddon told writers as spring training opened. “I’m a really big believer in running towards the fire instead of away from it,” he said. “I want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everyone speaking so glowingly of us.”
Too often we make the mistake of equivocating and tap dancing when the stakes are high for our clients. Maddon shows us addressing the challenge directly with a clear vision can unify your team and reframe the message for the media, shareholders, and, in this case, fans.
Decisive Action, Against the Grain
Maddon was an early adopter of data in baseball as a young minor league manager and major league coach. He uses the data from the Cubs vaunted analytics team–“our Geeks are good”–to develop his game plan.
But no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. After preparing, he will follow his instincts and make bold strikes.
Maddon saw an opportunity to manage like it was Game 7 in the World Series when it was only an early August series on the road last season. While he talks like a Zen-style manager, when he sees the need for action–as he did in that critical series against a Wild Card playoff rival– he is an active interventionist who made aggressive pitching and lineup changes to take advantage of opportunity against the defending 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
The Cubs swept the Giants in San Francisco and continued on a 14-3 run over the next two weeks.
According to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, Maddon employed more than 150 different batting orders last season. He frequently had the pitcher batting eighth, contrary to convention wisdom.
Whether it’s crisis communications or law, our clients need us to prepare and make use of all of the resources at our disposal to advise them and advocate on their behalf. Our job is also to help them take action, because it is only by playing the game with the passion of a Maddon-managed team that they can improve their situation–even if they’ve been stuck there for more than a century.