The Firing of Terry Francona: Lessons in Crisis Communications

By David Calusdian, Executive Vice President & Partner

The firing of Red Sox manager Terry Francona offers a few valuable lessons in crisis communications, especially those relating to the unexpected departure of an executive.  For those of you outside of Red Sox Nation, let me offer a little background: the only living manager of Boston’s professional baseball team to win a world series (twice!) is now unemployed after missing the playoffs following a disastrous September collapse.  To be technical, Francona wasn’t fired; the team declined to pick up the option on his 2012 contract.  While the debate over letting Francona go is an ideal subject for a sports-focused blog, the way the decision was communicated offers two valuable lessons to anyone in crisis communications. 

1)      Take a Deep Breath:  When a decision is made suddenly to release a senior executive, care should be taken to think through the communications timeline.  The Red Sox put Francona in front of the microphones the day after the final game of the season for no reason other than to discuss the final calamitous loss.  If ownership had even an inkling that the team would be sending Francona on his way, why put him in front of reporters to awkwardly answer questions about his future?  To make matters worse, the very next day Francona held a press conference to announce his departure, which was then followed by another media gathering by the Sox brass to discuss the action.  Why two additional separate press conferences?  The Sox would have been better served to have one well rehearsed press conference (including Francona and the Sox higher-ups) to address the disastrous end of the season and announce that the time was right for a managerial change.  In any crisis situation, take a deep breath, think a few steps ahead and plan all messaging and timing of external communications accordingly.

2)      Be Credible:  I am obviously not privy to the private discussions between Francona and his former bosses, nor am I in his head.  However, the party line at Fenway Park that Francona made the decision to leave, and that ownership tried to entice him to take the weekend to think about the decision is laughable.  Even before the late-season collapse when the Red Sox were playing the best baseball in the league, the team had failed to pick up the 2012 club option on the most successful manager in the franchise’s history.   So to say that it was Francona’s (and not – at best—a mutual) decision, is just not credible.  In sports, as in business, it is better to provide the whole truth or say very little and let the audience come to the right conclusion on their own.  In business situations, saying that an executive has “left to pursue other interests” is a typical euphemism for “fired” but allows both sides to save face and maintain credibility.  In the end, the organization needs to communicate in its own self interest beyond the needs of the departing executive, but in doing so, also needs to maintain its credibility. 

Whether communicating the departure of an executive or in any other crisis, management needs to think through how their messages will be received by their audiences. The content and the sequencing of the communications are critical to how the messages will be accepted.  Based on the firestorm that continues to erupt in Red Sox Nation, the franchise did not do an adequate job on either.  Corporate communicators should take heed of the Sox’ mistakes and remember to take a deep breath and communicate credibly during their next crisis.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues such as corporate disclosure, proxy proposals, shareholder activism and earnings guidance. David’s clients are focused in the industrial, life sciences and technology sectors.

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10 Comments

Filed under Crisis Communications, Media Relations

10 responses to “The Firing of Terry Francona: Lessons in Crisis Communications

  1. Great thoughts, David. In the world of sports, the spotlight is huge. Dodging or redirecting it is virtually impossible. I still remember the length of Joe Torre’s press conference after the announcement that he was leaving that certain team in New York. He seemed unwilling to wrap up until every last question was addressed. Class job. Thanks for sharing, Dennis. Go Sox.

  2. This is excellent analysis, David. So often, people think it is a good idea to fudge the truth a bit, especially when it comes to dismissals. It doesn’t work. People really know the guy got canned and he/she is put in the uncomfortable position of following the company line. Be candid. Getting fired is no crime, it’s a chance for someone to show how classy they can be while under duress.

  3. David,

    An interesting piece and in a perfect world you’re absolutely right. However in the world of professional sports, you can’t always map it out the way you did in your post. After being in Major League Baseball for 16 years and dealing with a very similar managerial situation myself, here are few items for you to consider:
    1. The timing of these events can’t always be orchestrated. Until Evan Longoria’s home run went over the left field wall late last Wednesday night, I can tell you the primary focus of Francona and the Red Sox brass was on making the post season. Thus, at least in my personal experience, the future of a manager with a team in contention is not discussed until after the club is eliminated. Second, it’s common practice throughout baseball to make the club’s manager and/or general manager available to the media the day after the season to recap the season and in most cases discuss the next year. If Francona and the Red Sox bypassed that annual media availability, the team would not have had any messaging out for public discourse and been the subject of rumor and innuendo. One of the key tenets of communications is to control the message.
    2. As for a “well-rehearsed press conference (including Francona and the Sox higher-ups)”, this is not always possible in sports. Managers, coaches and players are not your usual employees. They’re contracted employees who in many cases are more interested in their personal brand instead of the team/company brand. Each side wants to get their message out and a “well-rehearsed press conference” doesn’t always lend itself to that goal.
    3. I agree with you to tell the truth, but I’m not sure we all know the truth. It’s been known in baseball circles for the last few weeks that Francona was considering leaving to either take a year off or manage another team. So, the Red Sox could very well be truthful.

    • Tom Newberry

      Blake,

      Thank you for the insight on the world of sports. What team(s) have you been involved in and what was your role? You appear very well informed on the culture of baseball franchises.

      I believe David is simply using this highly visible example as an opportunity to point out what a typical commercial enterprise should consider in announcing the departure of a key executive without creating an undue crisis among investors or customers. Having lived through this a couple of times in my career, David’s thoughts are spot on.

      Although these types of general recommendations should be tailored for any business’ unique situation, I believe a number of other sports franchises, including the arch-rival Yankees, have handled separations with coaches and GM’s with more skill and more in line with David’s principle points than we have seen in the Francona episode. The most damaging aspect for the Sox is that a significant portion of their fans now are convinced that there was a purposeful lack of transparency. Trust in the franchise/ownership has been diminished – perhaps never to return to the same high level again.

      • Tom,

        Thanks for your thoughts. I was with the San Francisco Giants for 16 years, serving as the media relations director, and we had a very similar situation in 2002 with Dusty Baker after the World Series.

        Unfortunately, our brand suffered some image issues after that situation too. They’re never pretty anyway you look at it. You have to remember that most fans will side with players/managers vs. ownership (especially with popular figures like Francona and Baker), so you know that you’re fighting uphill battle as you go into the process.

        I agree that David’s advice is spot on for most industries, as I said in my comment. Communications principles are the same across different industries, although they need to be adapted for individual industries. Simply put, there is not a “one size fits all” strategy for every industry.

  4. Tom Newberry

    John Henry and Larry Lucchino were on the WEEI Dennis & Callahan show this morning – http://audio.weei.com/a/46761917/john-henry-and-larry-lucchino-answer-questions-about-theo-epstein.htm They addressed a wide range of issues on the team, some with more clarity than others. Setting aside whether you agree with their direction and views for the team, as a communications executive do you think this was a good start at rehabilitating the franchise’s relationship with its fans? What would you do as a next step, or would you now just let (or hope) the issue fades into the background since the team’s more complete thoughts on all the pertinent items are now stated all in one forum?

    • I do believe that ownership has taken a step forward (albeit a small one) in rehabilitating their image. Publicly addressing the concerns of an organization’s stakeholders (in this case, the fans) is quite often the best way to begin to repair a damaged reputation. The Sox brass did a good job in being as transparent as possible given some understandable limitations on what they could say on certain topics. There will be many additional opportunities to raise some of the issues that culminated in the firing of Francona. For example, when the new manager is hired, when trades or free agent signings occur, or if and when the GM leaves town, ownership will be back on the hot seat to explain its decisions in the context of the 2011 season. But of course, in Boston, the fans will not be truly content with ownership, management and the players until the 2012 Sox win the World Series.

  5. Excellent comments, David. However, it’s conventional wisdom that “baseball managers are hired to be fired.” That’s the way they generally exit. I think a bigger challenge comes when a company decides to dump a CEO heir-apparent who has a high profile in the industry and headquarters community, good media skills and recognition, and no public record of failure or wrong-doing. There is no “September collapse” to point to. It doesn’t get much tougher than that. That’s when you need your best crisis handlers and advisers.

  6. Pingback: Media Opinion of New Manager Understandably Important to Red Sox « Brooklyn to Beantown

  7. David,

    Excellent post. It is essential to prepare in advance for any crisis situation that could affect your organization. The Red Sox did not seem to properly prepare for Francona’s departure.

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