Eric Dezenhall has helped Enron scofflaws and ExxonMobil look good in tough spots. He’s not sure, however, if there’s anything he can do for Dan Snyder and Ted Lerner.
Dezenhall is the founder of Dezenhall Resources, a local PR outfit and a leader in the crisis management field.
His firm’s clients have included the law firm representing Jeffrey Skilling, O’Melveny & Myers, which hired Dezenhall after Enron’s 2001 implosion, and ExxonMobil, which, according to a BusinessWeek report in 2006, hoped Dezenhall would undo the damage done to its reputation by Greenpeace.
Imagewise, Snyder and Lerner are local equivalents of Enron and ExxonMobil. And that was before last week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, in which both were named to a short list of the worst owners in sports.
So I called Dezenhall up looking for a crisis manager’s view of their, well, crises. He says that while he thinks he understands what ails their relationship with fans, he won’t guarantee that he’s got what it’d take to rehab ’em.
Or if they’d want his help even if he did.
In citing Lerner as a worst owner, SI made a lot out of the Esmailyn González scandal, in which a top prospect was found to be using a fake name and age, likely with the knowledge of Nationals scouts and upper management. The magazine called that situation “perhaps the biggest recent impropriety in baseball outside of the Steroid Era.”
But Dezenhall, who has lived in D.C. and followed its sports teams for 25 years, pins the Lerner family’s ailing standing with sports fans on a failure to convince anybody they can separate baseball deals from development deals.
“There’s something corporate about everything the Lerners do,” he says. “Intellectually, fans understand that a sports business is a business. But that’s not something we want to be reminded about all the time. It’s important for an owner to show people that you’re investing in the team largely with the aim of giving back to the community, as opposed to simply having some business agenda that is beyond the comprehension of the average fan.”
In shit-listing Snyder, SI built a case almost exclusively on vintage miscues, such as turnover in the head-coaching position and the fact that he once had “nearly $225 million committed to LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Laveranues Coles and Adam Archuleta.”
Sure, he’s been meddlesome: Snyder installed Jeff George as the Skins QB, and he admitted publicly that he fired Marty Schottenheimer because the coach wouldn’t let him have enough control of the team.
But we’ve had meddlesome owners around here before. One example: The headline of a 1968 Washington Post article—“Williams Says Jurgensen Will Play ‘Whole Game’ With Steelers”—tells how much influence Edward Bennett Williams, then the Skins’ president, had on personnel decisions.
And with every interview Ted Leonsis, who grew up less a hockey fan than Snyder was a football fan, talks more about what kind of players the Caps need to catch up with Pittsburgh.
Yet Snyder doesn’t have enough goodwill with the fans to get away with either the Williams or Leonsis tack.
Dezenhall surmises personal traits, not personnel meddling, are what ails Snyder’s image.
“There’s just a certain lovelessness about him,” he says. “He’s a billionaire, but there have been plenty of billionaire owners. Jack Kent Cooke was the crazy old squire, and his wealth was nothing that the average person should be able to relate to. But he was outlandish, and had such a large local presence, so he was accepted. And there’s Ted Leonsis—again, wealthy—but there’s a teddy-bear quality to him, where he seems to enjoy the role he plays. But Snyder has this image of almost bloodlessness, just very remote.”
Snyder could cure his own remoteness easier than most owners: He also owns a network of sports radio stations.
I learned everything I know about that medium’s damage control powers last week, while listening to an interview of the Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall on The Junkies, a morning drive-time show on WJFK-FM. Hall was routinely described as a troublemaker and overall no-goodnik when he came to the Skins last year. He’d been cut midseason by Oakland and, despite his making two Pro Bowl teams, had already been given away by Atlanta after the 2007 season for reported personality reasons.
But for me and anybody else who knew Hall only from his clippings, the WJFK interview was a revelation. The guy who showed up on the airwaves was personable, interesting, smart, and lived up to his own billing as “the coolest cat you’ll ever meet.”
“From what I read, I had it ingrained in my head that he was a bad guy,” says one of Hall’s interviewers, Eric “E.B.” Bickel of The Junkies. “But with us he came off as a reasonable, fun-loving, nice guy. And he took everything we asked him. Sure, we’re easily swayed by a guy if he’s nice to us on the phone. But I really don’t think that if he was a malcontent, a real jerk, that he would have come off so well. I think you can tell a lot about a guy when he gets on the radio like that. I was blown away. I loved him, and I told him.”
I related my Hall/Junkies experience to Dezenhall, and he said, for sure, public exposure has turned the tide for some clients in crisis.
But it’s not for everybody.
“With Snyder, and I have no dog in this fight, but when I have a client that is simply not good in those situations, in engaging the media, I avoid putting him in media situations,” he says. “It reminds me of Richard Nixon wanting to be Kennedyesque, so he put on his wingtips and walked along the beach. That wasn’t him, and everybody saw it. Does Snyder have a radio station? Yes, but my sense is he’s much better in a boardroom than on the radio. He’s known as being very aloof, and that would come through.”
So is there anything Dezenhall would recommend Snyder or Lerner do to get right with sports fans?
“Other than win, I don’t know,” Dezenhall says. “Because they might not want anything to change. Some people may like to be liked by the community, some people just like to be liked by fellow billionaires. I see people like that all the time. It’s a mistake to assume everybody’s goals are just like ours.”
Bickel admits he’s no expert at image rehab or crisis PR. And he, too, guesses that Snyder doesn’t worry about his reputation. He adds, however, that he’d love to be given the same shot at rehabbing Snyder’s image that Hall gave him and his showmates.
“But, man,” he says, “that would take more than one interview.”
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