My good friend and mentor Bert Cunningham had a distinguished public and private sector PR career spanning more than four decades. More recently, Bert taught public relations at Hofstra and occasionally contributes ideas for this blog. He’s guest-written this week’s blog and as always, Bert’s words are timely and wise:
The outspoken part owner of California Chrome, Steve Coburn, blew the goodwill his horse earned by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with his post-Belmont Stakes rant. Last week, he doubled down with more sour grapes. He didn’t apologize until the following day, which was too late. Other news stories took center stage by then. And, most importantly, the 20.6 million who viewed the race on TV had moved on.
Here’s the lesson: Coburn didn’t have a PR plan for a loss. He believed his own hype.
Coburn knew going to the Kentucky Derby it was possible fresh horses could be entered in the Belmont if his horse made it that far and that it was possible his horse could lose.
He convinced himself California Chrome could not lose, despite the odds against a win. In any business there is always the possibility that things can go south despite all the hard work and positive PR. That’s why it’s necessary to have a “Plan B.”
The day before the Belmont, June 6th, was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. It was marked with moving ceremonies in France, New York, and other places around the globe. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall commander of the invasion, was ready with a statement in case it failed. After more than a year of planning, build-up and training, Ike was ready in case things went south.
Coburn, unfortunately, didn’t take the time to pre-plan a gracious statement just in case. Had he simply acknowledged he was disappointed with the loss, but still believed California Chrome was a champion, he would have gained a great deal of empathy. When the news came out Monday that Chrome was clipped by another horse out of the gate and ran the race injured, the horse would have gained even more sympathy for running a gritty race.
Now, Coburn is viewed as a poor loser who blew his 15 minutes of fame with hot-headed remarks that made him look foolish. He also put his sponsors and others on his team – and it is a team effort – in awkward positions.
Brands cannot survive in the long run with that kind of short-sighted PR strategy. Leaders of organizations, and chief communicators, must understand they carry a huge responsibility to protect reputations in good and bad times. It not only makes good business and PR sense, it’s a moral/ethical imperative. Your thoughts?