A Major League Headache

 width=Every PR person has one: The ultimate war story, the craziest thing they’ve ever worked on. Mine happened 8 years ago this week, when an unsuspecting Cubs fan reached out for a ball and, in the opinion of many Chicagoans, stole the Cubs’ chances of finally getting to the World Series in the process. Sports fans the world over remember a name that I will never forget: Steve Bartman.

As soon as it happened and after he was escorted out of Wrigley Field by security, the media became obsessed with uncovering the Cubs fan’s identity and whereabouts. While Steve was sequestered, they found his father, who accidentally informed everyone of his son’s place of employment – the company where I happened to handle public relations.

Almost immediately, the satellite trucks showed up, as did the angry mobs of Cubs fans out for vengeance. Then, the calls started. It seemed every media outlet in the United States and many from abroad wanted to talk to, and know more about, Steve Bartman. For two straight weeks, we answered the phones morning, noon and night. I personally took calls from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Matt Lauer and David Letterman themselves, all wanting an exclusive with Bartman. While Steve himself was given an administrative leave from work and had basically gone into hiding, the PR team was tasked with handling the mess.

Over the course of my public relations career I have handled massive product recalls, political scandals, lawsuits and even Congressional testimony for the Enron debacle, but everything else pales in comparison to the Bartman phenomenon.

The story has taken on a life of its own, and, every October, without fail, some member of the media, somewhere resurrects the story. This year’s resurrection included an ESPN retrospective and a feature story on a married couple who met while sitting in the same row as Bartman at the infamous game. It seems the poor guy will NEVER live this down.

So, is there a PR lesson in all of this? Absolutely. It is this: A crisis can come out of absolutely nowhere and consume unbelievable company resources and time. The ones who survive the onslaught are the ones who have taken the time to think about how they might respond to a crisis and have established a plan of action that addresses basic things, such as who will answer the phones, who is our main media spokesperson, where can we put people for updates, how will we reach people if something happens on a weekend or after hours, etc.

So, what would you do if the satellite trucks showed up at your headquarters? Be prepared to answer that question or, like Steve Bartman, you won’t be able to catch a break (or a ball, for that matter…)

Comments

  • What a story! I have to say, the Cubs are having enough problems without outsiders costing them wins.

    But the question you ask is particularly important in terms of social media damage control. When users post excited messages on a company’s wall, it’s crucial that the company is prepared to write back a response that acknowledges (not denies) the issue, while looking forward. I’m reminded of when Nestle insulted their FB fans (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/03/5-lessons-from-social-media-pr-disasters/37977/). Now that was a company without a united PR front!

    • I appreciate the comment, Katie. Thankfully, social media was not one of the channels we had to worry about back 8 years ago when this happened, but your larger points of timely response and clearly defining an issue without being defensive are well-taken. The real lesson in the Bartman case for me was that crisis situations can come from the most unlikely (sometimes even astounding) places and a little preparation goes a long way. This is especially true in an era of immediate news, self-publishing and engaged consumerism.


  • Add Comment