Communications lessons learned from Bobby Thomson, who hit ‘shot heard round the world’

Willie Mays, Echelon Mall, Voorhees, NJ, 1982
Willie Mays, surrounded by security officers, arrives at the Echelon Mall for an autograph session, September 4, 1982
Willie Mays, Echelon Mall, Voorhees, NJ, 1982
Willie Mays, surrounded by security officers, arrives at the Echelon Mall for an autograph session, September 4, 1982

You can learn lessons about how to manage public relations — and how not to manage them — from just about everywhere.

In the early 1980s, Willie Mays made a personal appearance at the Echelon Mall in Voorhees, NJ, walking distance from the condo where we were living in at the time.

I trotted over to the mall with my cameras, and was rewarded with photos of a clearly irritated, impatient, and annoyed Mays being escorted into the mall for a sports memorabilia show where he was to sign autographs — at a fee of $10 each. I marvelled at the number of people willing to shell out what I thought was a very high admission fee at the time (I’m not a sports fan and I know they charge a lot more at some shows today.) But it was clear that Willie wasn’t very happy to be there and didn’t much want to interact with the fans that day.

That’s why I was saddened to hear yesterday of the passing of Bobby Thomson, the New York Giant hero who hit the famous 1951 home run dubbed “the shot heard round the world,” that earned the Giants the National League baseball championship.

I had the chance to not only meet Thomson, but actually eat dinner with the legend in 2001. It happened at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind shortly after I became vice president of corporate communications at Summit Bancorp. Summit was a presenting sponsor for the school’s celebrity golf tournament and silent auction of baseball memorabilia.

Steve Lubetkin and Bobby Thomson
Steve with baseball legend Bobby Thomson, at the St. Joseph's School for the Blind Auction and Dinner, August 20, 2001. (Edward Kozmor Photo)

The school had a special relationship with the New York Yankees, and such famous old-timers as Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto also played in the golf tournament and attended the dinner. It was a baseball fan’s delight.

As we entered the ballroom for the dinner, the event organizers presented attendees with a “swag bag” full of the obligatory sponsor gifts, key rings, coffee mugs, and, lo and behold! a baseball. As soon as people realized they had been given a baseball, they mobbed the legends at their various tables, beseeching them for that once in a lifetime autograph. (Note to party planners, maybe you should give out those trinkets at the END of the dinner, not the beginning?)

I sat in awe as Thomson patiently signed more than 20 baseballs, chatting happily with everyone who had lined up at the table to beg for the signature. The poor man hadn’t even been allowed to pour dressing on his salad before they began demanding his autographs, but he never said a word or looked the least bit unhappy. He cheerfully signed every ball until dinner was finally served.

I asked him if it didn’t bother him a little to be interrupted like that, and he smiled and replied that he and Ralph Branca, the pitcher who threw the famous pitch in 1951, would be in New York the next day signing 600 balls together at the autograph dealer. Obviously those balls would be sold, but Thomson still was completely gracious and accommodating to the fans at the dinner.

His unfailingly polite demeanor and cheerful response to his fans made a big impression on me, and made me wish for that simpler era when sports figures actually interacted with their fans directly instead of through promoters, league officials, and the filter of overly commercialized and controlled events.

A good example of how commercialized sports have become is the email I got from the Radio and Television Digital News Association (formerly the Radio and Television News Directors Association).

RTDNA is running a webinar August 26 to review with radio and TV journalists “what content your staff is legally allowed to post and broadcast under the NFL’s guidelines.”

Yes, the NFL actually places heavy restrictions on broadcast journalists about what images and audio they can post on their websites and in their filed reports. Covering a game is no longer about news, it’s about monetizing the content, and the NFL is great at doing that. Pay your $10 and you can have one autograph.

The lesson for communicators and their clients is this: How you interact with your publics can make a big difference in how people think about you and your brand. If you appear impatient and annoyed that you have to deal with the public, they will remember that.

If you charge people for access to the simplest things, it may not be good for your brand in the long run. The most common response to the viral video of the passengers having a pillow fight on an airplane? “I wonder how much the airline charged them for the extra pillows.”

And if you appear genuinely to enjoy being with the people who want to be associated with you, they will love you back. This applies in the real world and in the social media world too.

If your social media interactions with your company’s “fans” are insincere or too tied up in corporate regimentation or making money from the engagement, the fans will get disillusioned.

If you are real and honest and sincere, you’ll win more of them over.

That’s the real “Shot heard ’round the world.”

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