Cubs GM Theo Epstein built a culture of transparency

Fostering A Culture of Transparency

On the night of November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, ending the longest drought in the history of American sports…

OK, before I continue—a caveat. This isn’t going to be another metaphorical sports-as-insert-unrelated-industry-here blog post. I’m not going to compare media relations to a clean-up hitter nor end this piece advising your team to “hit is out of the park.”

But there is a practical lesson the Cubbies’ historic run can offer to organizations that contract with a healthcare PR agency.

When he was hired to run baseball operations for the Cubs in 2011, Theo Epstein held a remarkable press conference. He explained that in order to build a winning club, the entire structure needed to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. The overhaul would affect every aspect of the organization, even the ball park, and that several years would pass before the front office’s effort bore fruit.

It didn’t take much to read between the lines—the Cubs were going to stink. And not in the usual way fans had become accustomed to. In other words, history-making bad.

What was remarkable—and perhaps overlooked—about that press conference was Epstein’s transparency. It’s an unwritten rule in sports to never admit to a rebuild, to confess that the product you are placing on the field may be intentionally awful for the foreseeable future.

If you were a Cubs fan between 2011 and 2016 and you referred to “The Plan,” everyone knew what you were talking about.

Reflecting on those sour years, Epstein said, “You realize it’s just easier when you’re transparent. …You realize it works with everyone. It works managing up, it works with the media, it works with agents, it works with your fans.

It’s kind of the best way to do things if you can pull it off. Something as simple as transparency is really scalable, because it quickly impacts the culture.”

Transparency is a critical component of a successful PR program. Great PR teams are proactive. Not only do they get ahead of stories, they also help create the narrative. But that only works if a transparent culture is fostered between the agency’s team and the organization it represents.

PR teams that understand the good, the bad and the ugly of the organizations they represent allow them the space to best position the company and its narrative in the public eye. Quietly working on a months-long initiative only to bring it to your PR rep’s attention the day before launch and expect the moon in terms of coverage is unrealistic. Obscuring a poor outcome or promising customers that never show up to interviews puts your rep on the defensive and makes your program reactive, always playing catch up.

Think of your PR team as the guardians of your reputation. They can only protect and position what they know. In short, anything and everything you tell your PR teams helps them help you. On the flip side, a good PR team is going to be explicit about being upfront, diligent and discreet in their communications.

So what are the ingredients for a culture of transparency?

  • Be open. It’s important to focus on missed opportunities as much as victories, so we can learn from our experiences and apply it to the next campaign.
  • Seek and deliver feedback. PR is as much an art as science. Some initiatives work, others don’t. If your agency’s style of operation doesn’t mesh with your own, speak about it openly and frankly. If you have a good agency, they’ll adapt.
  • Make sure good news isn’t the only news. Every organization hits a rough patch—a delayed initiative, an unhappy customer, internal shake-ups. Keeping your PR team in the loop helps them offer constructive advice and a strategy for dealing with these issues should they become public.

A transparent culture impact everybody—it build trusts, strengthens relationships, and enables your PR team and organization to tap the flexibility and creativity required to be a positive, proactive force in the marketplace.

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