Across America, communications professors jumped to add another example Wednesday night to their lecture about public relations "don'ts."
The Chicago Fire unleashed a wave of jeers from its most loyal fans and jokes from national media when it posted on its website "Editorial: What it means to be part of the Fire family", written by senior director of communications Dan Lobring. Coming just days after fans received their 2014 season-ticket applications, it's a response so poorly executed that it can't be ignored. The Twitter postings and Web hits continued to gain momentum Thursday as the controversy played out.
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Citing occasional profanity reportedly leveled at Fire personnel, Lobring defends himself, the club and owner Andrew Hauptman from attacks on message boards and an incident at the Aug. 7 U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Toyota Park, a disappointing loss to D.C. United during which a fan or fans apparently lobbed insults at Hauptman and his family.
"Yes, ownership and family were at the game," Lobring wrote in perhaps the least provocative part of the editorial. "And yes, fans have a right to boo and show how disappointed they are, especially when the Club they love doesn't perform up to expectations. Look, I'm an unabashed Detroit Lions fan, I know the mentality of a fan going an entire season without winning or watching a team go longer than a decade without a playoff appearance. It's the thrill of victory and agony of defeat that makes sports great. And from what I've seen and heard from Fire supporters, I know it runs even deeper in soccer than anywhere else in sports.
"But are personal attacks, threats, accusations, etc., that happened at that Open Cup game OK? Are shouting obscenities to staff, our owner and his family, or other supporters attending games with their families the norm? There's a fine line between love and hate and being critical vs. being destructive. Certain incidents in particular related to that game have given me and others at the Club pause."
The editorial, which includes Lobring defending his hiring and his role with club, sent commentators and soccer fans into overdrive. Deadspin, the popular sports commentary website owned by Gawker Media, weighed in with a mocking response. National soccer writers are wondering what's going on in Chicago. In rival cities accustomed to reveling in the Fire's misfortunes, some have expressed pity for the club.
All this has created a huge distraction as the team approaches a nationally televised game Friday night that the Fire needs to win to keep its playoff hopes alive.
This is the proverbial train wreck. You don't want to watch, but you can't help but check out the outrage. There's a sadness that a once-proud franchise, a club that won MLS Cup in its first year in Major League Soccer, has sunk to the point of publicly and prominently defending its owner from accusations he's cheap and doesn't care about winning.
If you're going to own and work at a major-league sports franchise, you can't have a thin skin. You can't be constantly checking message boards and social media and newspapers for criticism.
As Jerry Reinsdorf, the McCaskeys and Tom Ricketts know, fans and media will critique you. You have to accept that when you get into professional sports.
Reacting to the criticism, as Lobring does on Hauptman's behalf in this editorial, is just asking for more. In spades. And the Fire is getting it.
This could haunt the club as long as Hauptman owns it.
Follow Orrin's commentary on Twitter @orrin_schwarz