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PR and Pugilism: On teams' interactions with blogs

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Two stories have come out this week that highlight the difference in philosophies major league teams display when interacting with internet-based writers.

First, over the weekend front office executives from the Mariners organization spoke at an event for readers of Lookout Landing and U.S.S. Mariner, the two most prominent Mariner blogs, and perhaps two of the wider-read baseball blogs in existence.

Then, in the face of fan backlash regarding John Smoltz leaving for Boston, Braves GM Frank Wren was asked about blogs, and said the following:

Said Wren, speaking of the reason he strategically avoids such sites: "It’s not unlike talk radio, and I’ve stopped listening to talk radio. I don’t think the average sports fan calls talk radio, nor do I think he goes on the blogs. That’s a special group of fans — someone who wants the experience of making a call or typing a sentence. I don’t think that represents the masses. If you go by those, you get a somewhat distorted view."

Thanks to Rowland's Office for the quote, which I also noted in Monday's Mug.

The difference in those stories is striking, and it's mirrored by the public perception of the respective front offices. You can't throw a cup of coffee around the Mariners blogosphere without hitting someone who's writing a positive post about the new Mariners front office. Meanwhile, there's an awful lot being written about the immediate need for change in Atlanta. I think all of this shows one of the skills we don't talk about all that often but a successful executive absolutely must have: basic public relations.

Frank Wren doesn't like internet writing. That's fine. He's also in the middle of an offseason that has seen his team miss out on acquiring Jake Peavy and Rafael Furcal. One of the faces of his franchise just wandered off and signed with someone else. He's hardly in a position to say things that equate to, "I know better than you, so I can and will disregard your opinion."

Furthermore, picking a fight with bloggers is almost always a bad idea. You want to make enemies with part of your fan base? That's probably not a good decision. You want to make enemies with a guy with the time to maintain a blog and an active audience of your most dedicated fans? That's flat-out stupid.

Case in point: Ned Yost. Ned Yost was probably not the worst manager in baseball while he was here. Furthermore, he probably wasn't worse than Davey Lopes or Jerry Royster, the two managers that preceded him. If Yost had been likable or even just quiet, he likely could have managed for several years and been seen as a tolerable, if not great, manager.

But he wasn't. He was prickly, defensive and stubborn. He frequently responded poorly to new ideas and refused to defend poor decisions. Simply put, he treated the press and his fanbase as an undue hindrance, the unwashed masses that didn't know anything and got in the way of his effort to build a franchise of gritty battlers. And even though the timing of his dismissal was somewhat awkward, on the day he was fired we practically threw a parade in this space.

Let me simplify my point: Regardless of what you think of them, you should treat your fans like you care what they think. This goes double if you're responsible for a team that isn't winning. Frank Wren and Ned Yost have a similar combination: They're not overly successful, and they show outright vitriol towards people who think they should do something different. Whether they're good at their jobs or not, execs who manage that way set themselves up for a turbulent ride followed by an abrupt dismissal that large portions of their fanbase will celebrate.

Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that a lot of what passes as "writing" on the internet is absolute crap. There's unfounded rumor (this isn't unique to the internet, by the way), uncalled for obscenity and sports content that's just filler between posts with bikini pictures. But, in the midst all of that, there are literally hundreds of writers out there working on new ideas, developing new methods for assessing player value or offering alternatives that haven't been discussed. There are literally dozens of blogs about the Brewers, representing hundreds of hours of weekly original thought being put into a team by people the team doesn't have to pay or even acknowledge. That's not a nuisance, that's a resource.

Even if you don't see the internet that way, anyone with basic public relations experience could write a statement like this:

I don't read everything that's out there, but we certainly monitor what's being said. You never know where a good idea might come from."

Regardless of your opinion on internet writing, the toothpaste is out of the tube. The internet exists as a medium for fans of your team to gather to discuss, deconstruct and disagree with your decisions. There are dozens of blogs on every MLB team, many of them with thousands of readers daily. They're not going away. They can be a resource if you let them, or you can make enemies with them and they'll celebrate when you're gone.