- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Like a papier-mache donkey filled with candy, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has taken a flogging lately.

After all, Snyder has seen his reputation bottom out, with pigskin pundits across the nation berating his management of the 8-8, home-for-the-holidays team. One broadcaster likened Snyder to the Grinch. Another ventured that he was less popular than Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Even Snyder's new coach, Marty Schottenheimer, had harsh words for his boss less than a month ago.

"Dan Snyder is seen as Ebenezer Scrooge with a football team," said Edward Segal, a Washington-based public relations consultant. "At this rate, people are going to come out and hope that the Redskins lose just to serve him right."

But is the world's biggest (and richest) Redskins fan doomed to be despised, living out his days as an East Coast answer to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones? Hardly. In Washington, where image-doctoring is more art than sport, there's a comeback lurking around every corner. Think Nixon. Clinton. Oliver North. Marion Barry.

All it takes is the right spin.

"There's a very strong parallel between public relations efforts in politics and sports, and Snyder's image is not that much different than a politician's," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and president of Washington-based Luntz Research Companies. "The good news for Dan is it can be restored in very short order. Fans haven't taken him to heart yet, but he can change that with a good dose of public relations."

How to go about it? Easy. After consulting with a smattering of Washington observers and public relations experts, The Washington Times has put together a five-step plan, one guaranteed (note: but not in the legally binding sense) to put Snyder back in the football public's good graces:

Step 1: Recognize the problem

Since purchasing the Redskins for a whopping $800 million two seasons ago, Snyder has been decidedly hands-on. He's dumped staff. Picked quarterbacks. Installed a sideline telephone. Kept a vigilant eye on the location of interim coach Terry Robiskie's desk.

What he's failed to do, however, is take an active role in shaping his public persona. And the consequences like this season's toothless, injury-riddled Washington attack have been more offensive than charming.

In and around football, many see Snyder as brash at best. Obnoxious at worst. And overly meddlesome all the while.

"When you're a [business] CEO, there's not the same kind of attention to your actions, but as a team owner you're in a different world," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, president of the Washington-based Mellman Group. "The things you do have consequences for your image, and unless you pay attention, things can run wild. People pick up on the worst of what they see and magnify it."

Like the pre-election Al Gore, Snyder first must acknowledge his image problem and his role in creating it before he can fix it. Why should he bother? Simple: Though Snyder's reputation has yet to impact the Redskins' bottom line (according to recent reports, the team is a $65 million a year cash cow), it carries troublesome potential.

Consider Washington's recent coaching search in which a number of high-profile candidates including Schottenheimer, pre-$10 million wanted nothing to do with the team. Or its controversial owner.

"The Redskins are a very strong brand, and his name is synonymous with the team now," said Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte-based sports public relations firm. "As a businessman, he needs to ask himself if his image is getting in the way of the brand that he spent so much money for."

Step 2: Kill 'em with kindness

Twelve years ago, George Bush the Elder spoke of a "kinder, gentler America." Today son George W. Bush promises to change the tone. America's top grossing movie in 2000, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," tells the story of a cold-hearted green grouch transformed by warmth and kindness. Even Newt Gingrich has emerged from exile, sporting a softer, almost cuddly persona.

The moral? Nice is in. And mean especially fire the secretaries, throw their stuff in the parking lot and fire up a fat stogie mean is very, very out.

"[Snyder's style] is not exactly 'let's sit down together and be happy,' " said the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, a longtime Redskins fan. "It sort of cuts against the mood. He appears to be a divider, not a uniter."

Clearly, a change is in order. It's time to put on the kid gloves, get in touch with the inner teddy bear, be loved instead of feared. Otherwise, Snyder's employees likely will work just hard enough to avoid termination. And the Redskins will go on packing it in at the first sign of failure.

Just ask Robiskie.

"In the business world, you can be a Chainsaw Charlie, known for your turnaround capabilities and jumping from company to company," Hessert said. "But when you own an NFL franchise, it's not a thing that you turn around and get out of. You have to live with what you've created."

Need Snyder mimic the suddenly soft Bill Gates, he of the sweater-wearing, wealth-sharing, feel-good-ad-airing, antitrust-despairing change of heart? Absolutely not. But should he tone down his my way, win now or be gone ethos? It wouldn't hurt.

"You have to use the things about you that are already in people's heads but turn them into a more palatable package," Mellman said. "For instance, I've had clients who were seen as being more comfortable in Washington or Hollywood than their home states. For them, you needed to change the context, tell people they need someone who is comfortable in those places to fight for them."

How can Snyder "change the context?" Try the following thought exercise. Suppose you're the owner and Redskin Park's practice fields aren't up to snuff:

(1) Don't think, "They're trying to kill my players with their crappy fields."

(2) Do think, "Our father and son groundskeeper team does great work, but I want things even better nothing but top-of-the-line turf for my aged free agents and handpicked quarterback."

It's just that easy.

Step 3: Chill out

Everyone knows that Snyder loves his team who wasn't charmed by the tale of his grade school Redskins belt buckle? and that he handles losing about as well as Bruce Wayne handled the death of his parents. But Snyder is no longer just a fan. He's in charge. And as such, he can't take every setback to heart.

As any politician worth his weight in soft money can tell you, coming up short is part of the game. It happens to the best of 'em. What matters most is how you deal with it. Bill Clinton is living proof.

"Losing is tough in sports and in politics," Barnes said. "But what America loves is a gracious loser, not a rash, angry, reckless loser who strikes out by firing people and so on. Look at Al Gore. During November and December, his popularity numbers were decreasing while George W. Bush's were increasing."

In both presidents and owners, the public craves a cool hand, a weighty, unflappable presence. They want the Wizard of Oz and like that fictional ruler, both professions are served best when the munchkins pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

For Snyder, this means lowering a profile just shy of the Washington Monument's. Take his private chopper. While shuttling prize rookies LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels from Dulles to Redskin Park on draft day looks magnanimous, touching down at midfield to catch morning practice can appear a bit pompous. At least in some circles.

Remember: It's football, not the fall of Saigon.

"The only time you want to see an owner is when the team is winning," Barnes said. "The best owners don't show up much. When would you see Jack Kent Cooke? When the champagne was flowing in the locker room. Presidents have a hard time with this, too. They can command a large television audience, but the truth is, you don't want to use it much. You want to keep some of the mystery intact."

Likewise, Snyder should delegate more and meddle less. His promise to Schottenheimer "It's your show," he reportedly said is a good start. And it sure beats the alternative.

Before Super Bowl VI, Richard Nixon phoned the Miami Dolphins to recommend a play. Two years later, he resigned in disgrace. Coincidence? We think not.

"Jimmy Carter determined who played on the White House tennis courts, and he was condemned for it," Luntz said. "The presidents who were the most popular, like Ronald Reagan, set a tone but left the implementation to their managers. If you own a team, fans want you to manage, not interfere."

Look at it this way: If the people preferred an up-to-the-elbows micromanager to a man who seems more interested in clearing cedar than the fate of the U.S. presidency, they would have elected Gore.

Step 4: Make nice with the media

As Channel 7 (live from the parking lot at Redskin Park) can attest, Snyder isn't always fond of the press. And with good reason: If it isn't some @#$#! from The New York Times trying to nail Dubya, it's some @#$#! from a local newspaper trying to skewer him.

Problem is, the diminutive owner can't buy, sell or shoot the smarmy badgers of the fourth estate. Worse still, it's slow suicide to dismiss them.

"It's critical to cultivate a relationship with your primary constituents," Hessert said. "The media is a primary constituent, and the public, your other primary consistent, gets most of its information from the media. Both may be getting a distorted message because of inaccessibility."

Fortunately for Snyder, the press is fickle, and so long as freeloading jock-sniffers roam the Earth, chilly relations are easily thawed. Granting the occasional interview, providing ample game day credentials, letting nonaffiliated broadcasters set up shop indoors, remembering the birthdays of prominent local columnists (preferably with a nice press box cake), picking up the phone now and then all of these would be steps in the right direction.

"Say what you will about Jerry Jones," USA Today football writer Gordon Forbes said. "But at least he returns calls."

The goal here isn't Camelot 2001. Rather, it's getting the media to serve Snyder's purposes instead of the other way around. Isolation makes Snyder an easy target for byline-endowed misanthropes; a warmer, more charming Snyder would force his critics to snipe at easier prey, such as the Washington Wizards.

"You can't fight something with nothing," Mellman said. "You can't just say, 'I'm not that kind of person, I'm not a meddler,' like Nixon said, 'I'm not a crook.' You have to have something that you are."

Meanwhile, Snyder would do well to remember the axiom: Those who can, do, and those who can't report on those who can. The average sportswriter lacks the financial wherewithal needed to merge and acquire one's way to a cool billion in the communications industry. So why take the smarmy things they write personally?

Step 5: Just win, baby

Praise is nice. Money is better. But in sports and politics alike, there's only one proven cure-all: victory. And if Schottenheimer leads the Redskins back to the Super Bowl, all of Snyder's snafus including Pepper Rodgers will be quickly forgotten.

"When Bill Clinton has good approval ratings, it isn't because he's seen as this empathetic guy," Mellman said. "It's because the economy is in good shape, the deficit's been eliminated, the country is at peace. The truth is that nothing succeeds like success. And if the team was winning, people would like Dan Snyder."

Hey, it worked for George Steinbrenner.


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