Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Jim Woodcock Rebuilds Blues' PR after Keenan

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Jim Woodcock Rebuilds Blues' PR after Keenan

Article excerpt

What is a company's image worth? Sometimes the value cannot be realized until it has been lost.

So the biggest challenge of public relations may not be in doing good, productive work but in marketing the profession as a valuable - possibly in .... valuable - tool. Even the best PR work can be difficult to quantify. Effective public relations may contribute to a healthier bottom line, but sometimes its greatest value is in damage averted.

Case in point: The St. Louis Blues head into the National Hockey League playoffs with fans rallying behind a popular coach and a team that appears to be going places. There are a few lingering issues - such as the loss of popular players to free agency - that could diminish the team's blossoming good will, but most fans can be expected to give management credit for good intentions.

The story wasn't so pretty a couple of years ago. The Blues' dramatic turnaround probably has as much to do with good public relations as it does good hockey. The recent performance of the St. Louis Blues is a case study in the immeasurable but nonetheless invaluable power of public relations to ruin or restore.

"The St. Louis Blues had a very open, affectionate relationship with its fans that was for 27 or 28 years uncompromised. That managed somehow to be screwed up in a very remarkably short period of time," said Jim Woodcock, senior vice president of marketin9 and communications for the team. "There's no question we made it very difficult to like us, which is really incredible when you think about it. The Blues were incredibly cuddly and likable for a sports franchise."

It has been said often that the tough, hard-working personality of hockey is a great match to the blue-collar personality of St. Louis. While the Blues have seldom been a great hockey team, they were good enough to bond deeply with fans. But that great relationship seemed to fall apart soon after the Blues signed the bizarre but previously successful Mike Keenan as coach.

Under Keenan, players reportedly were discouraged from involvement in community activities, and popular players were traded in rapid succession. Many of Keenan's actions seemed calculated to show up the fans as well as the players. The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, came to the Blues with great fanfare, but quickly fled town. In the 1996 playoffs, home games were switched from free broadcast television to pay-per-view cable, further angering fans. Meanwhile, ticket prices were jacked up.

"Mike Keenan's approach was so dramatically different that, even had he enjoyed some success on the ice, I'm not sure it would have sat totally well with our fans," Woodcock said.

Fan favorites such as Brendan Shanahan were traded away largely, it seemed, for being popular. Fans soon began showing up Keenan the only way they could - by leavin9 thousands of seats empty when the Blues played in the new Kiel Center. The team's relationship with its fans quickly became so openly hostile that Keenan and team President Jack Quinn were relieved of their duties before the end of

Woodcock, an Eastern Illinois University graduate, had put in a decade of newspaper work before signing on at the Fleishman-Hillard public relations agency in 1992. He helped F-H provide counsel to Blues Chairman Jerry Ritter and new President Mark Sauer as the team began to repair the damage of the Quinn-Keenan era.

"Mark called upon us quite often to get our take on the community's outlook," Woodcock said. Eventually Sauer offered Woodcock a job with the team.

"It wasn't an easy decision, because I enjoyed Fleishman-Hillard so much. But this was a challenge and also a privilege, so I took it," Woodcock said.

Having seen situations in which public relations was restrained from success, Woodcock said he accepted the job with the assurances that he would be afforded the latitude to have at it. "It was pretty evident to me that things needed to be done both internally and externally for the club. …

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