To: Jay Cutler
From: Dig Communications (Olson’s Chicago-based PR Team)
RE: Your public-relations crisis
Please allow us a quick introduction. We’re a full-service communications agency that advises a number of clients on how to manage their reputations, and while those businesses typically pay us for our services, we’ll take you on as a pro-bono case, since we care about Chicago sports, and because you could use some PR help.
THE PROBLEM: As you are certainly aware, after exiting Sunday’s NFC Championship Game with a knee injury no one saw occur, you were promptly pilloried by many of your NFL-player colleagues and members of the media as a quitter who asked out of the game rather than playing through whatever pain the Green Bay Packers were inflicting upon you at the time. The severity and nature of your injury was also speculated upon during the broadcast itself, which was witnessed by 81% of the market’s active television sets, as you stood on the sideline without betraying any evident discomfort. And, of course, the Bears wound up losing the game in large part because of the quarterback play that transpired both during and after your time on the field. The fact that your injury has subsequently been revealed to be both real and reasonably serious does not seem to have done much for the widespread impression that you quit on your team. We aren’t making any judgments about it, just stating the facts. Now, since the Bears paid handsomely to acquire you, you are not going anywhere. Which means a poisoned relationship with the local fan base–and maybe even with your teammates– is something you have to fix.
THE SOLUTION: The first thing you need to do is shore up support among your teammates. Team leaders like Brian Urlacher have supported you in the press, but fans know that good teammates such as Urlacher do so reflexively in public. You need to meet privately with team leaders and walk them through exactly what happened with your injury, how you came to leave the game, and how hard you are going to work to get this team back to the Super Bowl. If you don’t win over the influencers in the locker room, you can expect to be questioned in the press by unnamed teammates constantly, which will make things worse externally, too.
At the same time, you need the team’s PR apparatus to be broadcasting the severity of your injury from the rooftops. This requires total transparency. If it can distribute revealing x-rays, it needs to do it. This effort seems to be underway, which is a good sign. And it’s already having a positive effect. Some of your Twitter critics, like Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, are already backing off, and others, like Arizona safety Kerry Rhodes, will be exposed for basing their opinions on long-simmering grudges.
Finally, you need to do something your team’s PR group may not like. You need to go on offense with the Chicago and national-football media, and give a first-hand account of how much the game means to you, how much being a Bear specifically means to you and how much you wanted to return to the game but couldn’t. You need to talk about playing injured and playing with diabetes and how there was no other place you wanted to be than on the field leading your team. And, while you have to be careful not to burn teammates in the process, remind people that you’ve toughed out worse times, like the nine-sack half you endured against the New York Giants.
Those steps should all be relatively easy. This next one won’t: You need to return to the field in the fall with a new attitude and, above all else, better body language. That smug grin that appears on your face every time you throw a baffling interception does you no favors, and much of the outrage that transpired Sunday occurred in part because you seemed completely nonplussed about leaving the game. No one is asking you to be as gregarious and entertaining as New York Jets coach Rex Ryan or as likeable as New Orleans Saints’ Quarterback Drew Brees. When you played in Denver, you were arrogant enough to famously declare your arm stronger than local legend John Elway’s. You’re always going to be you, but you need to be seen as a team leader that cares about whether his team wins or loses and cares about your teammates by supporting them on the sidelines in good times and bad.
Finally, there’s one more thing you need to do: win. As your quarterbacking colleagues Mike Vick and Ben Roethlisberger could tell you, redemption comes a lot easier when the team does well.
Jeremy Mullman, Senior Editor, Dig Communications