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The Firing of Terry Francona: Lessons in Crisis Communications

By David Calusdian, Executive Vice President & Partner

The firing of Red Sox manager Terry Francona offers a few valuable lessons in crisis communications, especially those relating to the unexpected departure of an executive. For those of you outside of Red Sox Nation, let me offer a little background: the only living manager of Boston’s professional baseball team to win a world series (twice!) is now unemployed after missing the playoffs following a disastrous September collapse. To be technical, Francona wasn’t fired; the team declined to pick up the option on his 2012 contract. While the debate over letting Francona go is an ideal subject for a sports-focused blog, the way the decision was communicated offers two valuable lessons to anyone in crisis communications.

1) Take a Deep Breath: When a decision is made suddenly to release a senior executive, care should be taken to think through the communications timeline. The Red Sox put Francona in front of the microphones the day after the final game of the season for no reason other than to discuss the final calamitous loss. If ownership had even an inkling that the team would be sending Francona on his way, why put him in front of reporters to awkwardly answer questions about his future? To make matters worse, the very next day Francona held a press conference to announce his departure, which was then followed by another media gathering by the Sox brass to discuss the action. Why two additional separate press conferences? The Sox would have been better served to have one well rehearsed press conference (including Francona and the Sox higher-ups) to address the disastrous end of the season and announce that the time was right for a managerial change. In any crisis situation, take a deep breath, think a few steps ahead and plan all messaging and timing of external communications accordingly.

2) Be Credible: I am obviously not privy to the private discussions between Francona and his former bosses, nor am I in his head. However, the party line at Fenway Park that Francona made the decision to leave, and that ownership tried to entice him to take the weekend to think about the decision is laughable. Even before the late-season collapse when the Red Sox were playing the best baseball in the league, the team had failed to pick up the 2012 club option on the most successful manager in the franchise’s history. So to say that it was Francona’s (and not – at best—a mutual) decision, is just not credible. In sports, as in business, it is better to provide the whole truth or say very little and let the audience come to the right conclusion on their own. In business situations, saying that an executive has “left to pursue other interests” is a typical euphemism for “fired” but allows both sides to save face and maintain credibility. In the end, the organization needs to communicate in its own self interest beyond the needs of the departing executive, but in doing so, also needs to maintain its credibility.

Whether communicating the departure of an executive or in any other crisis, management needs to think through how their messages will be received by their audiences. The content and the sequencing of the communications are critical to how the messages will be accepted. Based on the firestorm that continues to erupt in Red Sox Nation, the franchise did not do an adequate job on either. Corporate communicators should take heed of the Sox’ mistakes and remember to take a deep breath and communicate credibly during their next crisis.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues such as corporate disclosure, proxy proposals, shareholder activism and earnings guidance. David’s clients are focused in the industrial, life sciences and technology sectors.

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