Phillies flunking Public Relations 101

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro defended the Phillies' handling of Ryan Howard's injury. (Yong Kim/Staff File Photo)

Usually, I take the comments that run underneath my stories as seriously as I take another driver honking his horn at me and calling me an a--hole. Don't get me wrong, there are some thoughtful regulars, many of whom have different viewpoints than myself. But often times anonymous comments are the byproduct of the same psychology as road rage: a chance to release some steam against a person you will never have an interpersonal relationship with. "Excuse me sir, I disagree with your decision to follow the car in front of you at a safe distance" is different from "You're a poopy-head," just like "I disagree with your viewpoint for the following reasons" is different from "You're an idiot and I can't wait until your company goes bankrupt again and you lose your job and are forced to eat breakfast out of a Dunkin Donuts dumpster."

That being said, I'm finding it difficult to ignore the comments under my column today that accuse me of accusing the Phillies of withholding information from the fans, because that is not at all the message that I am attempting to impart. There's a good chance the mix-up is my fault. My job as a writer is to make my point in a clear, coherent manner, and if people do not understand my point, I have only myself to blame.

I'll flesh it out a bit using a couple of emails I received this morning.

The first was from a gentleman who observed that, "With all due respect, this whole issue with you and your colleagues railing against the Phillies is not making the reporters look good. I’m not saying it’s making the Phillies look good, but please just cut it out and report the news. You guys are not coming across as professional; you are coming across as entitled and vengeful."

The irony is that I agree with his over-arching point. There's a lot of indignation in our business that crosses the line between righteous and self-righteous. I'm a fairly pragmatic person, and I fully understand an organization's desire for privacy when it comes to certain inner-workings, particularly when it comes to injuries. As anybody who has suffered an injury can attest, rehab is a non-linear process that differs from person to person and situation to situation.

Unfortunately, the mass media has devolved into an organism that feeds more upon headlines than it does upon context. So if Ryan Howard happens to have one of those days of rehab where his body does not cooperate and he looks and feels like he will never return to the field, it does not do the Phillies any good to release that information to the public. It's why the organization did not want any reporters watching Howard rehab in Clearwater, which my colleague Bob Brookover found out first hand when he tried to watch the first baseman take batting practice last week. If Howard happens to have one of those rough days when a reporter is watching, it has the potential to become a big story that will send panic coursing through the fan base, even though such days are quite common during rehabilitation from an injury as serious as a ruptured Achilles. The opposite scenario can serve as an illusion too. Early in spring training, all the reports from people who watched Howard run contended that he was moving surprisingly well and that he was ahead of schedule, but many of those reports did not include the context that Howard was still in the beginning stages of his rehab and that it was still far too early to predict how his body would continue to respond to that work. And, lo and behold, he suffered an infection, and his progress plateaued, and seven months after surgery he still has not played in a competitive situation.

That's not to say that Brookie was wrong for trying to gain access to Howard. He's a reporter, and that's what reporters do, and his determination to exhaust all of his options before giving up on that mission is why he's a better reporter than I am.

The point I attempted to make in my column is that the Phillies seem to take the same viewpoint as the aforementioned emailer: It's none of your business, we'll update you when there is something to update, and you'll take that update with no questions asked. But that viewpoint ignores reality, which is that SOME fans want the inside knowledge, and SOME fans feel entitled to that knowledge, and SOME fans feel disrespected when an organization APPEARS not to value an honest line of communication with them. You might not be one of those fans, but that does not change the fact that there are fans who feel differently.

Over the past few months, the Phillies have displayed a consistent inability to communicate their message to the public, which can only hurt their relationship with the segment of the fan base that cares about such things. Take the situation that resulted in Ruben Amaro Jr.'s decision to publicly respond to an Inquirer article that he felt wrongfully implied that the Phillies' use of cortisone was partially to blame for Howard's ruptured Achilles. Amaro's talking points made a lot of sense, particularly when he emphasized that Howard was treated by one of the top foot specialists in the United States. The Inquirer article presented varying opinions from different doctors on the use of cortisone to combat inflammation near the Achilles tendon. But only one doctor, or team of doctors, personally examined Howard and diagnosed his condition. Only one doctor, or team of doctors, had access to the intimate medical reports that helped decide the course of treatment. Not to get too far off track, but maybe some questions should be raised about doctors who publicly comment on the treatment of an individual whom they have not examined. No reputable doctor would agree to diagnose a patient whom he has not had the ability to examine and communicate with in person. So why would a reputable doctor agree to opine on an athlete whom he has not examined or communicated with in person?

On the other hand, the use of cortisone and its effects on tendons is a worthy topic to explore. And again, the propriety of said opinions should not matter to the Phillies, only that those opinions are inevitable, and that they are liable to be published for their fanbase to read. So when the Inquirer approached the Phillies for comment on the various aspects of their story, the proper PR move was to facilitate that interview.

I am not privy to the details of the paper's efforts to obtain comment, so it is possible that they could have made a more concerted attempt, but the fact is that the Phillies declined to participate at least once. The fundamental principle of public relations is to control the message as much as possible. Declining to be interviewed about a story that is going to call into question your handling of an injury is declining the opportunity to have some control over that story. Much of what Amaro said yesterday made sense, but the proper PR move would have been to say it to the reporter working on the story. Waiting until afterward can create the perception of back-pedaling, of defensiveness. It also extends the life-cycle of the story. Declining the comment can create the perception of having a skeleton to hide. That might not seem fair. Perceptions are inherently unfair. But they matter, which is the reason why public relations exists.

Yesterday, my initial plan was to ignore the hullabaloo, just like many of you surely did. But as I wrote a column about the Phillies' loss to the Red Sox, and the tough stretch of games they have ahead of them, I began to see some relevance. The Great Cortisone Caper is only the latest incident in which the Phillies have displayed a fundamental ignorance of the importance of public perception. After Howard's surgery in October, the team released a statement that said it expected Howard to be competing at his accustomed level within five to six months, which is a wildly optimistic prognosis when compared to other Achilles injuries suffered by athletes. That doesn't mean they were lying about the timetable, or that they were clueless about Achilles injuries. But knowing the uncertainty of injuries, the better statement probably would have been, "Every Achilles injury is different, so we cannot provide an accurate timetable for Ryan's return this early in the process. We are hopeful that he can be back on the field within six months, but we are also aware that his recovery may take longer."

Rather than insisting all spring that Chase Utley would be ready for Opening Day and then having to deal with the perception of dishonesty when it turns out he would not be ready, the proper PR move would have been to say, "We're hopeful that Chase's knee problems are behind him, and we believe that he will be ready for Opening Day, but given the nature of his condition, we realize that a flare-up is possible, which is why we are holding him out for the early part of Grapefruit League play."

Rather than quibbling about the word "set-back" when Howard came down with an infection in his surgically-repaired heel, only to find themselves labeling it exactly that two months later, why not just call it a spade and deal with the next-day headlines blaring "Howard suffers set-back" rather than opening yourself up to the accusation of pie-in-the-sky optimism.

The reason all of this matters is because people can now use all of these incidents to create a portrait of an organization that either has no idea what it is doing when it comes to its players' health or that has a disregard for the virtues of honesty. And that matters because the team is 21-21 and some fans are growing restless with, as a buddy who attended yesterday's game worded it, spending their afternoons watching the Phillies leg out singles. And that matters because the current organizational talking point contends that help is on the way and that fans just need to hang tight and keep the faith until Howard and Utley return from the disabled list.

And with that, we come full circle.

As the CEO of a local PR/media relations firm wrote to me this morning in a message with the subject: PR 101, "I think the Phils are taking notes from the Tiger Woods school of media relations or crisis communications. If they weren’t 21-21, maybe it would seem like less of a crisis but the question marks are piling up like losses at this point."