Julia Schatz, Consultant

Last week I picked up a Redeye newspaper with Derrick Rose on the cover. The headline read, “REDEYE POP PERSON OF THE YEAR: D-ROSE, Off the Court and On, He’s Chicago’s Favorite Son.” Later that same morning, Crain’s Chicago Business led me to an article in ChicagoSide dissecting Jay Cutler’s very negative public image.

This got me thinking about the power of public relations in today’s world of professional sports.

Today, an individual player can become as big of a brand as the team they play for. Our current media culture allows us to become involved in the personal lives of public figures more so than ever before. Because of this, like we see in the Redeye headline, an individual’s performance both on and off the playing field can influence their brand’s public image.  The media articles about Rose and Cutler each perfectly represent how Chicagoans feel about these two athletes.

Derrick Rose is a public relations Cinderella story.  He is Chicago’s hometown hero with a classic underdog twist. Born and raised in the rough Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, he “rose” above his difficult circumstances to become the No. 1 NBA draft pick for the team he grew up cheering for. Rookie of the Year, the league’s youngest-ever MVP, his accomplishments go on and on. He has even managed to remove himself from Michael Jordan’s shadow and create his own legacy. Yet, it is his pride, concern, passion and commitment to his city that makes his brand increasingly popular. His new line of Adidas footwear displays elements of his Chicago roots. Even while injured, he seems to be navigating his way along the public relations field as gracefully as he does a basketball court.

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, on the other hand, is a public relations mess. He was just voted the second-most disliked player in the NFL. Despite his performance or whether or not the Bears win, Cutler is constantly criticized. The media focuses on him ignoring coaches, blaming teammates, swearing, pouting and just generally appearing aloof. He seems to carry himself the same way off the field. Cutler needs to become proactive in helping fix his own brand, or maybe he actually just doesn’t care. He should take a page out of Rose’s public relations playbook and strengthen his ties within the city. Smile, tell the fans you appreciate them, express how much you love Chicago and how you want to give back to the community, etc. Although these may seem obvious, these are all simple and effective ways of collecting positive PR points.

Yes, things can change. Maybe Cutler will turn his image around and become a fan favorite. Things can also go from positive to negative. For example, LeBron James was Cleveland’s own hometown hero turned villain overnight when he “took his talents to South Beach.” Hopefully, players can learn from others’ mistakes.

It is clear public relations is becoming nearly as important as a player’s performance or the outcome of a game. I believe that in Chicago, specifically, how much a player ingrains his or herself in the city plays an integral role in the outcome of their brand’s image. Oh, and winning always helps too.