Friday, May 03, 2013

Speak up

The management books are no doubt full of advice on what sort of role top executives should take in dealing with the public. There are all sorts of role models in that sense. Remember when Chrysler decided Lee Iacocca was the best possible front man for its message - or maybe Lee himself made that decision - and he became the star of commercials and books? Then there's someone like Howard Hughes, famous as a recluse.

It applies in sports too. Take the history of the Dallas Cowboys, for example. For years, the team's owner was Clint Murchison. He wasn't exactly chatty in public, letting executives such as Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Tom Landry to the talking. Later on, Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys, and Jones never saw a microphone he didn't like.

Oddly enough, that has emerged as an issue with the Buffalo Sabres. You'd think the Sabres would have better things to worry about - such as trying to win games - but owner Terry Pegula's relative silence has not been a popular stance. That's especially true with the media, but the public probably wouldn't mind hearing something from him at times too. It quickly took to him when he bought the team - he was just another fan, albeit one with $3 billion. Pegula admittedly doesn't have much experience in public speaking, and probably doesn't like to do it very often.

I've got some experience in this area. When I worked from the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, Seymour Knox III was in charge of the ownership group. Knox at times had the title of team president, and he did live in Western New York, so sometimes he did make public appearances. He understood that it came with the territory. Now, no one was ever too sure what he was going to say at such events. A few times in those six years I wrote speeches for him, and listened as he gave them to see how he much when he was sticking to the text. When he strayed, I became instantly nervous - although I don't remember any huge problems off the top of my head. Still, I could almost hear the robot in "Lost in Space" say "Danger, Will Robinson" in my mind. Others had the same reaction.

I would guess some people at the First Niagara Center have similar thoughts when Pegula speaks. His clumsy attempt at a joke involving Ted Black and Byron Brown at the groundbreaking of the Webster Block project might be considered an example of those fears somewhat coming to life.

Pegula obviously has set up a management structure that outwardly insulates him. He has Black running the operation and general manager Darcy Regier running the hockey department. They are certainly in the public eye, a lot. Is that enough? I don't think so.

This isn't the oil business (Murchison) or the aviation business (Hughes). It's a very public operation, if only in part because of public contributions to such areas as buildings and infrastructure. Pro sports relies on an emotional connection between fan and team. It's not a rational connection - unless you think wearing Zubaz pants is a rational act - and it's a fragile one. The Sabres got lucky with Pegula, who got weepy at the site of Gil Perreault at the introductory news conference and thus immediately showed the fans that "I'm one of you." Ask Ralph Wilson how tough it is to buy that good will over a long period of time. Keeping that connection is important to the health of the franchise, and having Pegula make a few statements can only help in that sense.

Admittedly, the media is insatiable in such matters, so Pegula and the Sabres might have to learn to pick their spots. He doesn't have to do a monthly news conference. The odd one-on-one interview and then the occasional group session when appropriate probably would work fine. Black and Regier can handle the easy stuff; they are pros.

Such a move might defuse the situation and get everyone to work on the relatively important stuff here - winning hockey games. I have no free advice on that one at this time.

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