PooR response

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Bert Cunningham

Bert Cunningham

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?

5 thoughts on “PooR response

  1. Alexandria Triolo

    In PR100 we have learned that it is absolutely essential to have a plan B in case anything goes wrong with the image, or reputation, it of a PR client. Coburn clearly didn’t have a PR plan or spokesperson working with him during his loss. While he was too busy convincing himself that California Chrome could not lose, he was overlooking the fact that the odds were actually against him. We have spent time in class discussing PR crisis within various companies, while determining the right way to handle each unique situation. After the Belmont, Coburn blew his 15 minutes of fame by publicly communicating hot-headed remarks which caused the 20.6 million viewers to see him as a poor loser. Now, it is obvious that he was upset with his horse losing, as any other owner was that day. However, I agree with your point. If Coburn had simply acknowledged that he was disappointed with the outcome of the loss, but still recognized the hard work and effort of his horse, California Chrome, he would have gained a significant amount of compassion from the viewers. Sorry to say, Coburn did not take the time to plan a backup statement in case California Chrome lost the race and because of that he will continue to suffer those consequences.

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  2. marissaespinoza

    I absolutely agree. I think that companies often fall short because they fail to consider potential PR crises and take into account things that may come up. Often organizations have a well thought out PR plan, but they don’t consider the worst that could happen. I think that in the Coburn’s case, he simply spoke without thinking, whereas a spokesperson could have greatly helped him.

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  3. stacyannn1

    I agree. You always need a Plan B. Things are not promised and its a 50/50 chance you might make it. The fact that his PR people did not have a Plan B showed how they really believed their hype. Its unfortunate but this is classic example of what not to do as a PR practitioner.

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  4. Evon

    The lack of a backup plan can be very detrimental in business, PR, and personal lives. Being shortsighted when it comes to PR shows a lack of preparation. Graciousness could have left some if not most criticism off of Coburn. However he let cockiness override the reality of the situation. Anyone can lose but what matters is how you handle it.

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  5. Keyana Hammons

    I agree. Not only in the PR world but in life as well, you always need a Plan B. Nothing is guaranteed and most things have a 50/50 chance of being successful. You should live by the quote “prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” Corburn, as an experience horse owner, should have used better judgement and known not to discuss his biased views on the races outcome with the media like that. Now, not only do people consider him a sore loser, but now people will think twice before working with him. He lost any chance of gaining sponsors and endorsement deals for this horse or the next one should he chose the enter the races again.

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