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The Midnight PR Massacre

It was a foregone conclusion that Willie Randolph would be fired from him job as manager of The New York Mets. However, the manner in which the team handled the firing proved once again that organizations that operate out of the business mainstream are kidding themselves if they think their poor decisions don’t have ramifications.

Randolph’s job has been on the line since last September, when the Mets blew an enormous lead over the last two weeks of the season and missed the playoffs. Expectations were high heading into this season, ensuring that a poor early season performance would doom Randolph.

The Mets got off to a slow start this year and have never gotten it going. Star players are under-performing; injuries have kept some important players out of the line-up; and, other players are proving that their best days are behind them. Add in some questionable management of players on and off the field, and the chorus calling for Randolph’s dismissal grew into a cacophony last week.

Thus, it was no surprise on Tuesday when the Mets announced that Randolph and two coaches had been dismissed. What was surprising was the mind-numbingly amateur way the team went about its business.

After playing a doubleheader in New York on Sunday that wrapped up around 8:00 PM ET, the Mets flew on a chartered aircraft to Los Angeles. The team played a game on Monday night in Anaheim that ended at about 1:15 AM ET on Tuesday and, according to the team’s official website, the Mets issued a press release announcing the personnel moves at 3:18 AM ET, or a little more than two hours after the game ended.

Now, that’s an odd time for any news to be released, much less news that isn’t urgent or unexpected. But the timing of the announcement, of course, kept the news out of the New York newspapers, a small PR victory at best in an era where more people get their news online than in print.

What irked people – fans and members of the media alike – is the fact that the Mets flew three men some 3,000 miles in the middle of the night only to fire them about 24 hours later. Worse, the team waited until 5:00 PM ET on Tuesday to hold a press conference to discuss the matter, and team officials would not comment on the moves before the press conference.

The press conference, when it was held, was handled by General Manager Omar Minaya and was close to disastrous.

Minaya was defensive from the start and more than once suggested that media speculation over the security of Randolph’s job forced his hand. He took full responsibility for the changes, trying to protect his bosses, the father-son combo of Fred and Jeff Wilpon. He also made little sense at times, rambling on about “perceptions” and apparently not fully understanding what the word means.

Reporters at the press conference were clearly unimpressed with Minaya and went after him with hard questions. They backed Minaya into a corner more than once, triggering his illogical commentary about “perceptions” (it’s hard to tell whether perceptions matter, don’t matter or are the most important thing in Minaya’s world) and forcing him to give an almost minute-by-minute timeline of his activities during the prior 48 hours. When the press conference was over, the lasting impression was that the Wilpons were gutless and Minaya is their stooge.

Minaya made matters worse minutes after the press conference by appearing on WFAN, the all-sports radio station that is the Mets’ flagship broadcaster. Three WFAN show hosts took turns hammering Minaya, with one of them coming close to screaming at him. No one argued that firing Randolph was a bad move, but there was a consensus that the team was classless and clueless in how it went about it all.

For what it’s worth, Minaya stuck to his guns, saying that no one but he, Randolph and few others knew the full story and that he felt he treated Randolph properly by flying out to Los Angeles to deliver the news in person. Unfortunately for Minaya, his excuse didn’t hold much water.

Randolph was overheard by reporters asking Minaya on Sunday night before boarding the team bus whether his job was safe and Minaya said it was. Additionally, other sportscasters reported on Tuesday that they were told over the weekend by sources inside the game when Randolph would be fired, who would be fired with him and who the replacements were going to be. These revelations blew up Minaya’s contention that he made the decision on Monday.

Firing Randolph may help the Mets on the field, but it won’t help the team’s front office. Randolph’s dismissal was handled poorly – in relation to human resources and PR. As a result, the team further alienated fans, turned Randolph into a martyr and left many in the business and media shaking their heads and wondering just how smart – or stupid – the people running the show are.

That latter point may be the biggest issue for the Mets down the road.

Fans will go to the games regardless (baseball fans, me included, have shown a proclivity towards being abused by the game we love), but the media won’t soon forget what’s already being called “The Midnight Massacre.” (It was just after midnight in Anaheim when the news was announced.) Meanwhile, players, managers, coaches, scouts and agents are also now more aware of how the Mets ownership and front office operate, and this may deter people from doing business with the team in the future. When that happens, the bad PR comes full circle.

For whatever reason, professional sports teams and leagues are in the same boat as many government agencies, a large number of media companies (think film and music companies) and pretty much anyone dealing with celebrities. These organizations consistently practice bad PR and give excuses that any real business person would find laughable. They get away with it because there’s typically no direct alternative solution for a consumer to turn to. However, what the people involved in these instances of bad PR are increasingly finding out is that their reputations are not bulletproof and that there is a price to pay.

In other words, they’re finding out that business is business, regardless of what industry you’re in.

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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