Things aren’t going so well for the Phillies lately, which means the PR department has to get creative. Any exclusive interview with a player will lead to questions (or, worse, answers!) about why that player is struggling or why he would or would not waive his no-trade clause when the Phillies BURN IT DOWN this summer. Any interview with a baseball ops exec or coach would lead to questions about why [insert horrible decision] was made or if a prospect was inadvertently traded to the Astros due to a clerical decision. And any interview with the Phanatic would end with him sticking his tongue-thing out and not saying anything.
“Fan interaction, player relations, charities, creative services, business communications, crisis issues,” Clark carefully listed her job description during a recent interview in her gleaming executive office.
In noncorporate speak, that means that she and her staff of 17 open and close the clubhouse doors to the media and the public. Clark’s purview includes locker-room interviews and the Phanatic About Reading Program, with plenty of opening pitches, advertising campaigns, pre- and postgames, Twitter and Instagram posts, fan mail, media guides and press releases in-between.
All told, Clark’s gig’s big. Along with Dave Montgomery and Ruben Amaro, she’s one of just 12 Phils execs. (She’s also one of two women. The other is Kathy Killian, vice president of human resources and customer services.)
As with many things pro sports, Clark’s job’s not what it used to be.
“Back in the day, [my position] was always the conversion of the sportswriter who became the PR person,” she said.
That’s how Larry Shenk came aboard back in 1963, and stayed for 44 years. He’s still there, part-time, as director of alumni relations.
“When I was in high school and so forth, we didn’t have any communications courses,” he said. “We didn’t have any public-relations courses. . . . Most of the PR guys came out of the newspaper business.”
“In my day, social media was buying drinks for the media,” he said.
As for this year . . .
When you’re the worst team in the National League, “the influx of fan mail and people voicing their opinions about the state of the team certainly changes,” she said, adding that her staff has been busy reading and distributing email and snail mail from the disgruntled masses. Clark said that each missive merits consideration and, unless it’s vulgar, a reply. “We tell them, thanks for letting us know how you feel about the team, and that we, like you, hope things turn around sooner than later.
“It’s much easier to do PR for a club that’s winning. Clearly.”
Biggest takeaway: the Phillies’ Twitter guy isn’t a guy!
I don’t know Bonnie, and I’ve had virtually no communication with the Phillies’ PR department (which, at this point, says more about the Phillies PR department than me), but I do know many people in the media, and almost to a man (and woman) the feeling is that the Phillies are the most difficult local sports team with which to deal. For a while there – really from when the new ballpark opened in 2004 through 2011 – the Phillies were riding high and positive coverage was easy to come by, and it practically wrote and filmed itself from 2008 to 2011. So the Phillies, not needing the help of new media, blogs or the Internet in general, stayed their course, making players available in highly-orchastrated press events and media scrums, giving beat writers a hard time when they dared to push the envelope, and generally doling out information like they were handling communications for the Gestapo. They were alarmingly slow to embrace Twitter and other social media, they still don’t post full press conferences and media availabilities on their website (they rely on short snippets with upbeat quotes and an endless stream of Scott Palmer acting cheery), and they mismanaged the communication of injuries to high-profile players (Chase Utley’s top secret press conference ‘neath a palm tree is my favorite). Basically, they were living on the team’s on-field success, and as long as it continued, there was little the PR department had to worry about. The ballpark was selling out, attendance was through the roof, and coverage was positive because of course it was positive when the team was that good.
Unlike the Flyers, Sixers, and even Eagles, the Phillies were so slow to realize, or still haven’t realized, that public opinion is no longer managed by late-night hotel bar pow-wows with the most influential writers. Instead, it’s shaped by things like Twitter, Facebook, live post-game press conferences and, still, talk radio. As recently as 2011, the Phillies didn’t allow online-only outlets in the press box (I’m not referring to this one– I never tried), and when they did, they granted credentials – to outlets with paid, actual journalists – on a per-game basis, explaining that there wasn’t always enough room (but unless it’s the World Series, there always is). At that time, they didn’t need more coverage at the risk of someone using their access to, God forbid, write something off-message. For a while there was a loose policy that writers couldn’t use their phones or Tweet from the clubhouse. And with the exception of one email exchange four years ago in which I was told my growing sports blog couldn’t be added to the media distribution list, I don’t think I’ve spoken with someone in the Phillies’ PR department, about anything. A handful of requests for comment over the years have gone unanswered, to the best of my recollection. The same can’t be said for any other local team. [Just for fun I sometimes request to follow the Phillies’ super-secret media-only account (@PhilsMediaInfo). I keep getting denied, which, regardless of what they may think of the site, is as absurd as the secret account’s existence.]
Wins and losses are a huge variable in all this, so this conversation about the PR department wouldn’t be worth having if the Phillies were even .500… but they’re not. They’re awful. And compounding the problem is that their marketing and PR is behind the times and borderline tone-deaf when it comes to online and social media. All those little things matter when the team is an embarrassment to the city and the sport.
So, that brings us back to this seemingly random story about Clark and her team. What, exactly, is the point of it? This is the Phillies’ PR czar she likes her job? Cool. That’s where we’re at now with team-sanctioned coverage.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some kids on my lawn that need a good yelling at.