In 2007, an NFL head coach heard something I said live on my SiriusXM radio show about an NFL organization being top-notch. He sent me a text message on the spot that simply read, "What makes this organization good? How do you evaluate?"
It was thought-provoking, to say the least. It inspired a 60-minute telephone call during which this coach proceeded to give me his perspective on what makes an NFL team top-flight. He said it starts with the owner, the owner getting it, and whether or not he is meddlesome and understands what needs to be done to truly produce a winner. He explained that you need a strong and open-minded general manager, supported by great football operations and scouting departments that share a vision with the head coach. He stressed the need for a strong quarterback, not just in terms of his play, but also in terms of understanding his role in the organization as a leader/spokesman. The coach said, "I need a quarterback who can play in the fourth quarter and understands what to do in the fifth quarter as a leader and representing the team."
And next on the list -- before assistant coaches, before other players -- was a great head of public relations and an accomplished P.R. staff. As he phrased it, "I've seen both. The great P.R. staff is detailed. I know what's coming from the media. You don't want 'yes' men or women. You want people around you who get it, who can help you, who can advise you. They are organized. They deal with the players. They establish relationships with the media. It's gigantic."
I've always remembered this conversation and have talked about its importance on several occasions.
And I couldn't help but think about it on Sunday upon hearing the news that the Oakland Raiders had fired public relations head honcho Zak Gilbert, a man who was superb at his job.
According to reports, Raiders owner Mark Davis fired Gilbert because he didn't like how he and his late father Al were portrayed in a recent article in Sports Illustrated. SI reporter Jim Trotter accurately painted a picture of Al's archaic ways, especially at the end. The Raiders were way behind the times in many areas, especially when it came to scouting.
To his credit, Mark Davis knew things had to change. The Raiders needed a general manager -- after years of somehow neglecting the position -- and Mark plucked a strong candidate in the well-respected Reggie McKenzie. McKenzie couldn't really participate in the 2012 NFL Draft because the prior regime had already cashed in the bulk of Oakland's picks via trades and the 2011 supplemental draft (Terrelle Pryor). This year, despite still lacking a second-round choice (thanks to the all-time horrible Carson Palmer trade), the Raiders entered the draft with a bevy of selections to play with. McKenzie had Oakland functioning like an NFL team in 2013. And wouldn't you know it, he traded back for more picks! The Raiders were joining the NFL party of this decade. It represented a major positive development.
The Gilbert firing, meanwhile, represented a disturbing flashback to the stone ages. It represented Mark acting impulsive. The move resembled something out of the Al Davis or George Steinbrenner playbook.
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Even a good P.R. head can't control what a writer writes or what a reporter says. He or she can't control when a columnist or talk show host opines and whines.
But good P.R. folks can make your life easier. They can serve as a liaison between the team and the fans. They can provide information that shows players, coaches and the organization in a good light.
They also understand this: it's sports. You win. You lose. Your coach, your quarterback, your team's defense are heroes today ... and bums tomorrow. You get good publicity. You get bad publicity. You have to monitor social media. It's important to keep your cool and act professionally while representing the organization's best interests.
This is why a good P.R. head is so important to a team. You need someone who can put out fires, prevent fires, even juggle fires, and stay the course throughout. Honesty and integrity go a long way. There's a reason teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers, to name a few, have such a wonderful reputation in terms of P.R.
As one executive told me on Monday, "You need a staff that's ahead of the game and understands the game. You have to know how to promote, pitch, know when to tell your team something is important, know when to back off, just know the pulse of ... well ... everything."
Zak Gilbert was perfect for Oakland. He was also hired by McKenzie, who brought him along from Green Bay. That's how it should be. McKenzie knew he was the right guy for the job. Gilbert understands the P.R. game and how it is played. He fits -- to a T -- the aforementioned head coach's description of the integral P.R. head.
Gilbert is the kind of P.R. man who would've advised Mark Davis about the backlash that would follow his firing.
I feel like Oakland is moving in the right direction under McKenzie. From hiring Gilbert to overhauling the draft room, McKenzie has made positive strides. Prior to this development, Raider Nation was finally getting the commitment to excellence it deserved for years.
I bet Mark Davis would like a do-over.
The head P.R. chief should work hand-in-hand with the general manager and the coach, operating in lockstep. I hope McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen sit in on interviews for the new P.R. head and pick the rep. It's kind of a big deal. If Gilbert can get fired on a whim, imagine what will happen next? It's that important.