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Public Relations Role Models: What You Can Learn From Pro Athletes

By now we all know it’s rarely worthwhile to hold up professional athletes as role models. While athletes still rank as popular heroes for kids, we’ve definitely seen a shift in the past decade to more traditional role models — teachers, doctors, etc. But one arena where it is worth looking to professional athletes as role models is public relations.

Professional athletes find themselves in a rather unwelcoming position; their jobs, for the most part, include daily contact with the media. Journalists are in the locker room before and after each game, not to mention doing play-by-play during the competition itself. And a bad night on the court or in the field always leads to some negative publicity. Just imagine if someone came into your office and critiqued your job and then wrote about it in the newspaper the next day. That’s pressure, and it’s also one reason why most pro athletes make more money in a year or two than most of us will see in our lifetime.

Still, after a season or two, you’d think most professional athletes would learn something about public relations. In the past few years there have been some glaring examples negative attitudes–both off the field and on–significantly damaging an athlete’s career. One such cautionary tale is of particular interest to those in the public relations industry.

Bill Singer had a 14-year career in major league baseball as a pitcher. He made two all-star teams. He won over 20 games in a single season; then he did it again. When his on-field career ended, Singer became a widely respected scout with close ties to the Asian baseball scene. His experience working with Japanese baseball players — now a hot commodity — made Singer an attractive commodity. He was hired by the New York Mets in 2003 as the Special Assistant to the General Manager, a step up from his previous gig. (Singer had been a Special Assistant to the GM in Pittsburgh, a smaller baseball market.) Singer’s tenure with the Mets didn’t even last two weeks.

At the annual General Manager’s meeting in Phoenix in 2003, Singer got a little drunk, according to press reports. The General Manager’s meeting is the equivalent of a baseball trade show where all the executives, scouts, and hangers-on get together to talk shop and try to figure out some trades. While at a nighttime gathering of executives, Singer approached a young woman named Kim Ng. An American of Chinese heritage, Ng is the Assistant to the General Manager for the Los Dodgers. At twenty-nine, she is one of the youngest executives in sports and she is the highest ranking Asian-American executive in American professional sports.

According to the New York Daily News, the following exchange between Singer and Ng took place.

Singer approached Ng and asked in a belligerent tone: “What are you doing here?”

“I’m working,” Ng said.

“What are you doing here?” Singer asked again.

“I’m the assistant general manager of the Dodgers,” Ng replied.

“Where are you from?” Singer asked.

“I’m from Indiana,” Ng said.

“No, where are you from?” Singer asked.

“My family is originally from China,” Ng said.

Singer then allegedly started speaking “gibberish” in mock Chinese. New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who happens to be Ng’s former boss, interceded and Singer left.

Obviously, this incident would make the news. Various baseball executives witnessed what happened as did a few members of the media. Singer and the Mets apologized publicly and privately to Ng. Singer said his comments were inappropriate and that he was “truly sorry.” According to media reports, Singer told his bosses that he had been on a low-carbohydrate diet, which caused him to suffer a chemical imbalance in conjunction with drinking alcohol that night. Singer was fired by the Mets one week after the incident.

Let’s breakdown this incident from a public relations angle, starting from the end. The Mets obviously did the right thing.

“As a matter of policy our organization can not and will not tolerate any comment or conduct by an employee that suggests insensitivity or intolerance to any racial, ethnic or religious group,” Mets GM Jim Duquette said in a statement. “Any deviation from this standard is not acceptable.”

The team laid out its corporate policy and used it as the basis for its decision. It didn’t personalize the matter in any way, which is smart. By referring to Singer merely as “an employee,” they make it known that whether it’s a high-paid executive or an usher, they won’t accept this type of behavior.

It took the Mets a few days to “review” the incident, which was a smart thing as well. Singer admitted to his transgression and there was a slight possibility that it would all blow over. And the Mets owed it to everyone involved to find out what happened and why it happened — and doing that with Singer still employed was much easier. So the Mets get an A+. They were actually lucky; Singer was a new hire and no one in the media connected his actions with the organization as a whole.

Ng and the Dodgers also get an A+ for the way they treated the situation. Ng essentially refused to comment, merely acknowledging that the incident took place. Ng’s boss, Dan Evans, got in a good “shot” without going overboard: “[Singer’s] conduct was inexcusable and extremely disappointing,” Evans said, using the approach of leveling shame as a weapon.

Upon Singer’s firing, Ng once again refused comment. Another good move because her actions had nothing to do with Singer’s fate. Cashman, who broke up the incident, also gets an A+ for simply keeping his mouth shut. Major League Baseball also stepped aside and let the Mets handle the situation.

Obviously the big loser here is Singer. His actions last Tuesday cost him his job and most likely ended his career in baseball. At age 59 it’s doubtful that Singer, now with an ugly mark on his resume, represents an attractive hire.

It’s important to realize that Singer’s actions could have caused considerable harm to his employer had he been a long-time employee. As an executive representing his company, with or without the presence of media, Singer had an obligation to conduct himself appropriately. That Singer chalked up his actions to some sort of health problem is laughable, a transparent excuse to cover up drunkenness. His conduct makes you question how he stayed employed in baseball for so long.

The Singer incident highlights the fact that any employee — not just those in public relations department — is a public representative of their company. Bad behavior outside of work can reflect negatively on your company. So how can you protect yourself, and your company, from this sort of incident?

Hiring is not usually handled by the public relations department, but I see no problem with the PR department briefing new hires on company policy. Talk about the company’s public image, both in the business community and the community at-large. Set ground rules for when employees can identify themselves as actual employees. People do “man on the street” interviews all the time; they may be asked about their employer, depending on the subject. You never know when someone may ended up being misquoted or just saying something foolish.

Obviously you can’t track your employees’ actions — unless you’re the CIA — but be prepared for anything. I’ve seen some amazingly bad behavior on display at trade shows and industry cocktail parties in the past. With that said, a “no alcohol” policy at such events may not be a bad idea. I love good Scotch, but there have been a few occasions where my drunken tongue got the best of me while I was out on “business.” Luckily, I was working for myself at the time.

To protect your company’s image, the best thing public relations professional can do is educate your fellow employees. A lot of companies have guidelines for workplace behavior, but it’s also important to make it known that actions outside the workplace can also get you fired. Tell them to call Bill Singer if they want an example.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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