The Chicago Cubs just can’t catch a break.
On Thursday night, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Cubs on the field, while the media spent the day beating up the team’s ownership.
As a change of pace, reporters and pundits weren't questioning the team’s World Series drought (or its horrific bullpen), but instead the Ricketts family’s political ties.
The billionaire Ricketts own the Cubs—along with a bunch of other stuff—and on Thursday The New York Times published a story
indicating Joe Ricketts, the family patriarch, had considered funding a $10 million ad campaign against President Obama. The campaign would draw upon the president’s connection to the controversial Chicago minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The news sparked a serious PR headache for the Ricketts family and the Cubs, roiling rank-and-file fans and angering Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
(who was, you'll recall, President Obama's first chief of staff). Ultimately, it could hurt the team's bottom line. Although Joe Ricketts isn't directly involved in the team's operations, the family is trying to hammer out a deal in which the city would contribute $150 million in tax dollars to a $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field.
The Ricketts reached out to Emanuel after the story broke, but the mayor didn’t take the call.
“Wow! The Cubs, the mayor, Wrigley Field, and the president all in one breath? It's a classic made-for-Chicago political deep dish drama being played out in The New York Times
and in a stack of media statements,” said crisis communicator Gil Rudawsky. “We don't even need Blago locked up in a Colorado prison.”
Ah, yes, those media statements. The Ricketts family on Thursday released a flurry of them (via the Chicago Tribune
Joe Ricketts said he had rejected the campaign. His son, Tom Ricketts, the chairman of the Cubs, stressed that he “repudiates any return to racially divisive issues in this year’s presidential campaign or in any setting—like my father has.”
(Joe Ricketts isn't directly involved in the team's operations.)
He continued: “I shall have no further comment on this or any other election year political issue. My full-time focus is on making the Chicago Cubs a World Series champion preserving Wrigley Field and making the Chicago Cubs a great corporate citizen.”
Joe Ricketts’ daughter, Laura, an ardent Obama supporter, also issued a statement saying that each family member loves America; they just go about showing that love in different ways.
So, how’s the family doing from a PR perspective?
“If I were counseling them, I'd have them do exactly what they're doing,” said Gini Dietrich, of Arment Dietrich in Chicago. “Distance themselves from their father, explain their own views on President Obama, and get back to the business of the Cubs.”
Dietrich, a Cubs fan, said she understands the mayor’s reaction, but indicated that she’d hate to be held responsible for the actions of her father.
Rudawsky agreed with Dietrich’s take, adding, “So far, the family has been effective by immediately issuing direct statements, offering at least some balance and common sense to the charged issue.”
Brad Phillips, a media trainer in New York, thought differently.
“One of the most important elements of effective crisis communications is
delivering a credible and consistent message,” he said. “On that score, the Ricketts
family is failing.
“Family patriarch Joe Ricketts is claiming to be a passive observer in the plan to resurrect Jeremiah Wright as a campaign issue against President Obama, but the evidence suggests he may have played a more active role. His son contradicts his father's claim, blasting his 'return to racially divisive issues.'”
Phillips said the family did the right thing by reaching out to Mayor Emanuel. “They'll need to work fast behind-the-scenes to staunch the bleeding that could threaten their efforts to renovate Wrigley Field,” he added.
Meanwhile, the statement from Tom Ricketts should help the family’s reputation among the fans, although Phillips said the jury is still out on the matter.
What’s been the reaction from the fans so far?
There was some outrage, evidenced by this gentleman’s tweet:
Among many other Cubs fans, it was the usual disappointment.
“It's hard to hear,” said Mitch Delaplane, a Chicago-based PR professional and Cubs fan. “We all know that money [the $10 million for the ad campaign] could be better used on things like public school funding, local charities, high-speed rail—or a better bullpen.”
Delaplane and nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the best course of action for Tom Ricketts and the Cubs is to field a winning team.
“The best response to maintain the Ricketts' reputation in Chicago would be for them pull the struggling Cubs out of the MLB's cellar,” said Rudawksy. “Bringing back the magic to Wrigley, even if it is a bit old, can erase a lot of bad politics.”
Delaplane offered the team’s ownership a novel idea, suggesting the team match any money Joe spends on politics with dollars for the struggling Cubs.
If the Ricketts don’t take his advice, Delaplane won’t be too embittered.
“I'm a Cubs fan,” he said, “so I'm pretty much always disappointed.”
It’s a busy weekend in Chicago. With the NATO summit in town, protesters will square off against Chicago police, as the Cubs take on their crosstown rivals, the White Sox. That might be enough to distract from the Ricketts family drama—if the Cubs win the series against the Sox, of course.