Photo Credit: Steve Bosch, PNG, Vancouver Sun
Most close observers tend to agree that "Public Relations" won’t matter much in shaping the outcome of a new CBA, and they’re probably right. But for a gate driven business in the midst of a public negotiation, the public relations angle isn’t meaningless. The current lockout is a three dimensional game of chess and every little bit of leverage matters, especially because the owners possess a large structural advantage (since they control a Monopoly on elite-level professional hockey in North America).
To that end, over the past week Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis – the Vancouver Canucks’ ace shut-down pairing – have been on a subtle media blitz. In contrast with Daryl Katz’s Seattle feint (which was bungled messily by the reactive @NHL_Oilers Twitter account), and Jimmy Develano’s mishandling of facebook (and his series of stupid public comments that led to his $250,000 fine); what Bieksa and Hamhuis have managed to do over the past ten days has been doubly impressive.
Read past the jump for more.
Giving Back in Spite of the Lockout
Let’s start with Dan Hamhuis, who along with his wife made a $100,000 donation last week to the Ronald McDonald House and BC Childrens Hospital in Vancouver. Dan Hamhuis has a long history of being a stellar human being, and I don’t mean to cast aspersions on his motivations in this case (I have no doubt that his motivations are altruistic and sincere). The fact remains that it’s just good PR anyway you slice it.
The Hamhuis family donation accomplishes two major things that benefit Hamhuis (and, indirectly the NHLPA as a whole). First off, it reminds casual Canucks fans about the active role Canucks players play giving back to the community. Secondly a sizable donation sends a message to the NHL and its owners that Dan Hamhuis, at least, isn’t so concerned about his personal finances to prevent him from making a massive charitable contribution.
Kevin Bieksa on the other hand, has led a charge to have Canucks players drop by minor midget team practices in the Vancouver area. He mentioned that several Canucks were planning on doing so to Jason Botchford early last week and then followed through in a big way. So far, Bieksa, Hamhuis and Mason Raymond have all dropped in on team practices across Vancouver. Again, I don’t mean to unduly question the motivations of the players in this case (in part, they’re probably fighting off some boredom), but from a PR perspective: appearing at a series of youth hockey practices is all upside.
At one of these practice drop-ins in particular, Bieksa and Hamhuis brought Brad Zeimer along, and the Vancouver Sun posted a story (with video) from the rink in North Van. The adulation their appearance engendered was predictable:
— Kelly Snyder (@kellysnyder80) September 28, 2012
As I said, this is all upside for the NHLPA. Zeimer, for example, shared this colourful detail from the practice itself:
Bieksa on his straight-arm of a Storm player: "He tried to put it through my legs and go around me and I’m like, sorry, not today Bud."
— Brad Ziemer (@BradZiemer) September 28, 2012
That’s pretty hilarious, and no one was more ecstatic about Bieksa’s rough-housing than the player who tried to make one of the league’s best defensive defenseman look silly:
— Thomas Winckers (@WINCK3RS) September 28, 2012
Winckers’ other teammates were equally ecstatic, after all, they got to appear on Sportsnet as a result of Bieksa and Hamhuis’ drop-in:
— Brandon Mcreynolds (@BrandonMcrey) September 28, 2012
And they left practice with a bunch of signed memorabilia.
— Ben Chipman (@BenChipman97) September 28, 2012
What a wicked all around hockey experience for those young men…
The NHLPA Mobile App
Beyond the midget AAA practice drop ins, Bieksa also appeared on local radio station The Fox and participated in a colourful interview on the Jeff O’Neil show. For the most part the interview is puffery, but Bieksa did drop one interesting detail about a method the NHLPA is using to disseminate information to their members, solicit feedback, and presumably, keep the players on message. Of course, we’re talking about an NHLPA mobile app, via Pass it to Bulis:
Bieksa talks about the NHLPA’s website and mobile app that they use to keep the player’s updated. Apparently there’s also a feature for members of the NHLPA to give input on any of the issues surrounding the negotiations.
You can read more about the Players Association mobile app here.
We’ve previously noted the uncanny way in which the players seem to escalate their rhetoric in concert with one another, and Justin Bourne noted the eerie level of coordination that is apparent on Twitter too. Hell, the NHLPA’s practice jerseys even have a hashtag on them: "#theplayers."
Taking advantage of the mainstream penetration of social media gives the players a new avenues with which to speak directly with fans and plead their case. Meanwhile the clever use of smart phone apps has apparently given the NHLPA a new way to communicate and coordinate with their members. Some of the players’ actions – the recent midget practice drop ins being a prime example – have leveraged these "PR/social media assets" perfectly. Other uses of social media, on the other hand, are more controversial and probably less effective (see Barch, Krys).
Public Opinion and the NHL Lockout
Generally speaking, on the PR side of things I’d argue that the players have done a much better job than the NHL has – especially over the past ten days. Bieksa and Hamhuis’ actions aren’t reflected in a recent Forum Poll conducted last week on behalf of the National Post but nonetheless, I think there’s positive news for the players in that poll.
According to the Forum Poll, nearly twice as many Canadians side with the players over the owners in the current lockout (18% to 8%). That ratio is consistent with the findings from a survey conducted by NRG Research Group and Peak Communicators. Sure, the vast majority (73% of respondents in the Forum Poll) of the ticket buying, game-watching public sided with neither party in the lockout, but the Forum Poll results look a lot more favorable to the players than the Ipsos-Reid results from 2004.
Obviously we have to be careful when comparing different polls, compiled by different companies 8 years apart. But according to Ipsos-Reid, during the previous lockout 52% of the Canadian public sided with the league’s owners, and 21% sided with the players. With our limited data it’s tough to definitively conclude much of anything, but I find it tough to believe that the erosion in Canadian public support for the NHL’s owners (from 52% in 2004 to 8% last week) is just a statistical anomaly.
Whether or not the so called "public relations battle" will matter over the course of this NHL lockout is a point of contention. The sideshow meetings this weekend where the NHL and the NHLPA discussed issues like drug testing and rule enforcement rather than HRR and a potential salary rollback, unsurprisingly accomplished nothing significant. At the moment, the players and the owners seem to be playing a game of brinksmanship, with neither side willing to "show their hand" by making the next meaningful offer.
In all likelihood, raw economic self-interest – and not the public’s perception – will determine which side blinks first. But in a gate driven business you’re mad to disregard the opinions of the paying public, and for what it’s worth, the NHLPA appears to be going to greater lengths to communicate that particular point with the public.