San Jose Sharks fans rarely hear from the owner, Hasso Plattner. It had been nearly a full year since Plattner’s last communication with the fan base, that is, until late Thursday afternoon. Plattner put out a message to the fan base on the team website. It spells out a number of things. Some are straightforward. There are the usual platitudes. He even covers some history. Still, most fans will note one thing in particular, scream and swear, then dismiss the rest.
I’ll start with the headline. General Manager Doug Wilson is praised and it seems clear, Doug Wilson is returning. Many fans will pretty much stop right there, roll out their full vocabulary of four letter words and skip the rest of the message.
There is a secondary message. For the first time, Plattner himself makes it clear: ‘the window has closed’. He conveys that indirectly, but there is no mistaking his comments. The prior era of hoping for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to lead the Sharks to a championship is over. Expectations are being reset lower until the rebuilding is further along.
The Message Objectives
It is worth reading the whole letter, if for no other reason than you can discern something more about Plattner’s management style. Any message of this nature is fundamentally about public relations (PR). Plattner is not a novice in this area.
The first thing to notice is how different it is from last year’s message. Plattner feels a need to explain his actions to the fans. This message is almost 4 times as long as last year’s message. He gets that short and simple is inadequate this time around.
When crafting a message of this nature, it starts with the PR objectives. This letter falls under the heading of damage control. Reverse engineering the letter, it becomes clear what many of the objectives are. The ones I see are (in no particular order):
* To have the fan base feel more connected to the owner
* To show the owner’s commitment to the fans
* To create fan confidence in the team’s thinking and planning
* To show the owner is both aware and involved
* To encourage season ticket renewals
In terms of connecting, I would say the owner was doing a solid job, right up until he ruined it. He connected with the fan’s greatest angst; that success hasn’t resulted in a Stanley Cup win, while 3 Cups have gone to the teams in Southern California. Then he complimented both Joe Thornton (management has not done much of that in the past year) and Todd McLellan (management was OK with his leaving), two of the more popular people among the Sharks fan base.
He takes it a step further, explaining that rebuilds are part of NHL life. He invites fans to play a Goldilocks-type role, asking: did the Sharks started this rebuild too early, too late or just right?
It is: “I feel your pain” followed by “we like the same things” and an offer to “walk in my shoes”. All are tried and true communication techniques.
Whatever he may have gained up to that point, blows up in the 9 words used to praise Doug Wilson and John Tortora: “The management, John and Doug, did a good job.” Wilson is the major target of fan anger this year while Tortora fired popular broadcaster Drew Remenda. Plattner was smart enough to leave the message headline to the second to last paragraph. He realized the rest of the message might not get read if he started out with the comments on Wilson and Tortora. Strangely, Plattner used the descriptor ‘good’ to describe Tortora and Wilson, while he used ‘outstanding’ and ‘excellent’ to describe McLellan. I suppose it is better to be good than to be excellent or outstanding.
The 2nd objective was about commitment to the fans. His choice to explain the Sharks strategy was helpful. He also went through a few business issues, including the TV deal, showing efforts to make the organization stronger. Among the oddest phrases was his comment about trying to finalize “a new arena deal”. The phrase was so vague that it could mean anything from a 1-year extension on the current lease all the way to a new physical building. It was a Rorschach test, for fans to interpret however they see fit.
The 3rd objective, creating confidence from the fan base that the Sharks were planning rationally, took up the largest portion of the letter (except for the platitudes … I’d like to thank, etc). Plattner’s explanations may resonate with the calm and collected, that probably is not where much of the Sharks base is these days. My sense is that he is fighting apathy more than anger and pragmatism more than ideals. On the former, the excitement is not what it was. Like a relationship that was good for a number of years, many fans may be feeling it has run its course. Pragmatically, season ticket holders are accustomed to being able to able to recover their ticket costs for games missed, that appeared to change this year. Once season ticket holders have to start eating the cost of games they choose not to attend — or start realizing that people sitting around them paid less the season ticket holder price, a meaningful portion of them will drop out.
Parts of the letter were intended to convey the 4th objective, that Plattner is aware and involved. Among the tidbits intended to serve that purpose: “Seven young players made the team” and “Remember where we were end of January in the standings?” It is Plattner’s way of saying he pays attention,. Judging from the comments on recent articles about the Sharks, this is something that many fans do not believe.
As for the final objective, he always wants more business. Today, that means selling tickets to season ticket holders. Practically speaking, it is more of an attempt at a stop-loss. This message could help some. Will it help enough to make a difference? A message tends not to override the on-ice product or management actions. If it helps, I doubt it helps a lot.
Did Plattner accomplish his objectives with this message? Not likely. Of the three major figures in San Jose that wear suits, he let the one go that was most popular while retaining the other two that fans seem most angry with.
Plattner was OK with the franchise taking a step back. It was a bigger step back than he might have expected, both in ticket sales and on-ice performance. His attempt to do damage control probably will not work as well as he hopes. At the very least, the message says he understands that he needs to stop the wrecking ball approach and accomplish some positives next season. Whether he believes his own PR is something we will find that out in the months ahead.