By Bill Greenwood
I grew up in South Jersey, about 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia, which means the Philadelphia Eagles have been a big part of my life. I remember the drastic lows of the Rich Kotite and Ray Rhodes eras and the soaring heights of Andy Reid’s tenure as head coach, including the team’s 2004 trip to the Super Bowl, our first since 1980. We lost to the New England Patriots, but the atmosphere surrounding that loss was an upbeat one. After three straight losses in the penultimate game of the NFL playoffs, we had finally reached the big showdown, and it would only be a matter of time before we won it.
Unfortunately, that never came to be. And now, seven years later, things have soured quite significantly for Reid and the Eagles, who fell to a 4-8 win-loss record after being embarrassed by the lowly Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, December 1. During the game, chants of “Fire Andy!” could be heard in the stands, and a large number of attendees simply got up and left during the third quarter, leaving huge spans of seats empty with eight minutes still to play in the game. This is probably the most persuasive argument that Philly fans have made for Reid’s firing, but how did it all come to this? Surely, the team’s disappointing play has been a big factor, but that’s not entirely Reid’s fault. Plus, the Eagles have been awful before and that never forced a mass exodus on this scale. So why is the blame being left almost entirely at Reid’s doorstep? Is this a PR #fail? Or is it a smart deflection strategy?
As a former journalist, there was one thing that always bothered me about Reid: his post-game press conferences. Each one plays out more or less the same way. Reid begins by listing the various injuries players sustained during the game and, in his own singularly gruff manner, offers an opening statement that usually falls along the lines of, “We didn’t play well today. I take responsibility for that. We just need to get better.” He then grunts, “Time’s yours,” and opens the floor up to questions. Except he might as well not, because any question, no matter how detailed and specific, gets the same response: “We didn’t play well today. I take responsibility for that. We just need to get better.”
“For members of the media, an Andy Reid press conference is kind of like playing a match against one of those backboards you see at some tennis courts,” writes Matt Babiarz of philly2philly.com. “You can hit any shot in your arsenal. And regardless of the force, spin or direction, the result is the same: a flat return right back in your direction.”
Having interviewed my fair share of tight-lipped individuals, I could feel the reporters’ pain as they tried to pry some information, any information, out of Reid. But I was always more upset on a fan level. Say what you will about the Philadelphia faithful, but all we really want is to see our teams succeed. And when they don’t, we’d like some reassurance that what we just saw was an aberration that isn’t likely to be repeated, that the coach understands what went wrong and will do something to correct it, that the whole season isn’t lost. Reid’s press conferences fulfill none of those needs. In fact, they make him seem ignorant and cocky at worst and misguidedly optimistic at best, neither of which does much to endear him to Eagles fans.
But since I started working in PR, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate Reid’s handling of the press. Yes, his approach is infuriating, but by adopting it, he has turned himself into a lightning rod for criticism that has shielded his players from close scrutiny, allowing them to focus completely on the task at hand. When you look at it this way, the “Fire Andy!” chants suddenly sound like a huge success, as Philly fans could just as easily be chanting “Eagles suck!”
So, is Andy Reid a PR genius? I wouldn’t quite go that far, but there are several lessons we can learn from him. First, always accept responsibility in a crisis, and do it quickly. If the company or individual you represent has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, there is absolutely no better way to incur the public’s wrath than to issue a denial that flies in the face of mounting evidence. Just look at what happened to Herman Cain in this year’s Republican presidential race. As more and more women accused him of sexual harassment, Cain continued to deny the allegations. Then, when Ginger White came forward with strong evidence that the two had had a 13-year affair, the public outcry was so severe that Cain was forced to suspend his campaign. And who did his former supporters flock to? Newt Gingrich, who was publicly outed for two affairs during his time as a Congressman. However, unlike Cain, Gingrich accepted responsibility for his actions during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody in March 2011, stating “when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them… ” Say what you will about the man and his campaign, but at least he got that part right.
Second, make yourself available to the press, but not too available. Reid rarely does one-on-one interviews, but he does show up for several press conferences every week. And while he nearly always comes off badly right after a game, he often lightens up a bit later on. For example, after the Eagles’ loss on December 1, Reid held a second conference on Friday in which he was asked whether he was worried about his job. He responded, “That’s a logical question, but as a coach, you don’t do that. I’m being as honest as I can with you. I don’t worry about that. I worry about getting better, and that’s where I put all of my energy in. That’s what I can control and become a better football coach, and make my assistants better while at the same time, make my players better.” This response works because it acknowledges the question and acquiesces to the fact that it needs to be asked before answering it with what is essentially a softened version of his boilerplate. This shows empathy to both the reporter asking the question and the fans who very much want an answer, an important part of crisis PR, without actually giving one that could make things worse and distract from the task at hand: winning football games.
And finally, stay on message. In Reid’s case, that means keeping the focus on himself and off his players, and he does it with surgical precision. However, if your client is prone to stray, it can become a real problem. For example, when John Mayer was promoting his most recent album, Battle Studies, he wildly overshared about his personal life to reporters at Rolling Stone and Playboy as well as his own Twitter account. The result was that Mayer’s crazy life and the inappropriate things he said became the main story and completely overshadowed the fact that he had a new album out. He has since shut down his Twitter and largely disappeared from the public eye, most likely the suggestion of a savvy PR professional, and chances are the storm will blow over. But if he had just kept the focus on Battle Studies in the first place, he wouldn’t have had to worry.
As a former journalist and current Eagles fan (heavy sigh), it’s difficult to give Reid his due, especially in the midst of such an epically disappointing season. But speaking strictly from a PR perspective, he’s done a good job taking whatever the Philly faithful can throw at him so his players don’t have to, and that’s admirable. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go throw snowballs at Andy Reid. I am a Philadelphia fan, after all.