The Cardinal Way

Full Disclosure – I am a lifelong, bleed-Cardinal-red, first-game-in-1970-as-a-three-month-old, birds-on-the-bat-loving St. Louis Cardinals fan. Stan the Man, Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Willie McGee, Bruce Sutter, the Wizard, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon – the list is a mile long. These are my baseball heroes, year-in and year-out. Either that makes me exactly the wrong crisis counselor for them or exactly the right one to advise on yesterday’s shocking news from the Gateway City:  St. Louis Cardinals Investigated by F.B.I. for Hacking Astros.

My first reaction – huh, you can’t be serious? Second reaction – why would the Cardinals need to do this? Corporate espionage from the team that wins the right way, through hard work, commitment and loyalty? Third reaction – the sinking feeling that maybe all is not well in Baseball Heaven. And now? Hope. Hope that an organization that is much more than a sports franchise to the city of St. Louis, the Midwest, and to devoted fans around the world, can live up to its lofty reputation and address this crisis the right way. The Cardinal Way.

What is the Cardinal Way? It’s often said that Cardinal fans are the most knowledgeable in baseball. We will cheer a good play by an opposing player because we appreciate the game. We notice the small things that unsung players do because we understand the game. As much as we love our Cardinals, we love the game of baseball and all its storied history. We respect the game.

That is the lens through which the Cardinals organization must evaluate its behavior. In a jaded, cynical world where we have come to expect so little of our heroes, it is True North that must guide every step the Cardinals take from this point forward.

The Cardinal Way can’t simply be a brand differentiator in good times. It must be the guiding principle to ensure the organization meets the lofty expectations of its stakeholders in this crisis response, to protect a reputation that has been built and nurtured for more than a century.

To be sure, the Cardinals will be making a large withdrawal from its bank of reputational goodwill in the days to come. Whether it draws that account down to zero, or into deficit, depends on next steps. Will the club duck and weave, evade and obfuscate, or will it live the Cardinal Way? Frankly, to be truly successful the Cardinals need to raise the bar and set a new standard for handling situations like this

The team will be scrutinized and judged by whether it lives up to this hallowed reputation. It is standing at the edge of a precipice with everything to lose. Should the allegations hold true, it will be teetering with decades of reputation hanging in the balance. Can it pull itself back? What else is required to save itself?

    • Know your values, live by them, and make them real and visible in the response
    • Use learnings from other similar situations (both in the sports world and outside of it) and don’t make the same mistakes
    • Don’t think this will just blow over – be prepared for a long slog
    • Be smart. You are in crisis. Be the best, most reliable source of information – good and bad – or others will fill the void.
    • Demonstrate best practices of reputation management – tone and language are critical, align actions with words, exceed stakeholder expectations and address misperceptions quickly
    • Make meaningful and tangible commitments to ensure it doesn’t happen again
    • Act like a leader – challenge the organization to go above and beyond

The St. Louis Cardinals are much more than a small-market sports franchise; more than a brand. They are a regional touchstone, an exemplar of Midwest values and personality. It’s a team that has always been seen as doing things the right way, even in a scandal-plagued sports world. The team has the legendary loyalty of its fans, but that is not unbreakable. Right now that loyalty is fragile. Redemption is possible in this case, but like reputation it must be earned. I hope it is earned the Cardinal Way. Show me. I’m from Missouri.

As the Managing Director of Ketchum’s Global Issues and Crisis Management Specialty, John Bradbury provides strategic issues management, litigation communications and crisis counsel to a wide array of clients for Ketchum around the world. He has worked on behalf of multi-national companies, developing and executing programs to manage issues and negative perceptions that threaten clients’ brands and corporate reputations. He has counseled clients in crisis situations, including product recalls, aviation events, workplace safety situations, data breaches, labor actions, activist and NGO campaigns, financial distress and bankruptcy proceedings, investigative media and regulatory inquiries. In addition, he has expertise in litigation communications, including national product liability and class action litigation, labor issues, intellectual property rights and other high-profile litigation assignments.