Swing and a miss.
The Atlanta Braves struck out at the PR plate on Monday with the bombshell announcement that after nearly 50 years, the team would leave downtown Atlanta for the suburban, "fan-friendly" setting of Cobb County, a dozen miles up the already overcrowded road.
The news hit the city's ego like a bean ball to the noggin' -- and didn't even come with a brush back warning pitch.
There had been inklings of the Braves interest in moving to the northern suburbs, but nothing substantial and certainly nothing official. But clearly, the news has taken the heart out of a lot of fans. Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with comments from Braves fans angered by the news. It's all anyone's talking about. "Good riddance," said many. "Change the name," said others. Some felt Cobb County had basically "bought" the Braves with the offer of $450 million in public assistance to build a new Braves stadium and surrounding mixed use development.
But mainly, people just wanted to know why -- and why so fast? Why not open this up to public discussion and debate? Good grief, even the worst of couples at least try to talk things through before blowing up the unhappy home.
Maybe it was stadium fatigue. Mayor Kasim Reed (and other civic leaders) used up a considerable amount of political clout and public goodwill to get the new Atlanta Falcons stadium approved and funded. It was a billion dollar plus bet being placed on a team that is currently not worthy of the Dome they now call home -- much less the league's fanciest stage.
Maybe it was stadium envy. Maybe the out-of-town owned Braves felt like the girl not asked to the proverbial dance -- while hometown hero and billionaire Arthur Blank and his dirty birds were being wined and dined -- partially on the city's dime.
Regardless, it was the wrong move and an unmitigated PR disaster. Fans are furious.
Here's what the Braves should have done to avoid the PR debacle:
1. Voice Concern. For many Braves fans, the move to the suburbs feels like betrayal that came out of nowhere. If the team had voiced frustration publicly (not just privately with city officials) with the stadium or their current location (not just the city's decision not to install a $30 million high-speed rail directly to the stadium), at the very least the public would not have felt blindsided.
2. Commission a Study and Make it Public. By and large the public understands the needs of business--although it may not seem that way sometimes. If the Braves had commissioned a study about the impact of moving to Cobb County, then released that information to the public, most would have understood their reasoning. As it stands, the Braves only released an odd map showing that most of their ticket purchasers live on the north side of the city -- but that has been true for decades.
3. Get Public Buy-In Before Announcing a Move. The people of Atlanta have a vested interest in their professional sports teams. In a sense, they are owners too. Whether through town hall meetings, online forums or simply messaging the move through media placements, the team should have gotten community input because the team's move will have a lasting impact far beyond just the season ticket holders. The area around Turner Field will decline at an amazing rate. Not to mention, what will happen to one of the city's last remaining monuments to the 1996 Olympics? Taking public perception and feelings into account would have gone a long way toward softening the blow when the Braves made their decision.
4. Control the Conversation. The Braves failed miserably in controlling the conversation. Even if they were able to follow the three preceding steps, there would certainly be a vocal group of naysayers. By controlling the conversation through local Op-Eds and targeted media interviews, the Braves could have turned a PR disaster into an opportunity for the community to engage and understand one of the city's most prized brands and its location predicament.
On my morning stop at McDonald's it was the first question my McGirlfriend Marie, who works the drive-in, asked me.
"What do you make of them Braves?" she asked.
"I hate it and it was horribly handled," I replied.
She cut to the chase: "I'll never go to another game," she said. "I used to love to take my kids downtown to see the Braves."
Somebody with the Braves should have at least talked to Marie.
Mark Pettit is president & CEO of Creaxion, one of the nation's leading marketing firms. Mr. Pettit has more than 20 years of marketing experience and is an expert in crisis communications. A former TV newscaster and published author, he also serves on numerous boards for Atlanta-based non-profits. Follow Mark on Twitter @PettitMark and online at www.Creaxion.com.