CutlerGate: How The Bears Dropped The PR Ball

Media and Media Relations — By

How intense were the emotions from the NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers?

Chicago fans were burning the jersey of Chicago Bears Quarterback Jay Cutler after game. A Chicago car salesman wore a Packers tie the day after the game and got fired because of it. Only to land another job and become the next media sensation in this heated rivalry and story with numerous sub-plots.

How big a story was this?

It was the NFC Championship game. As Adweek noted, “Fox’s coverage of the Bears-Packers brawl scared up an average audience of 51.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-prime-time NFC Championship Game ever, and on any network.”

But what aroused passions beyond any sports rivalry was the injury to the Bears star-crossed quarterback, Jay Cutler. (A player known for his tremendous physical talents but a reputation of not being a “rah rah” kind of guy who has been known to show indifference and a dis-interested demeanor on the sidelines at times.)

The Cutler story, and the opinions it created, burned up the sports airwaves both locally (Chicago) and nationally. (ESPN, among others.)

After Cutler was knocked out of the game with some huge hits, he took even more body blows to his image.

Today, the Chicago Sun Times had an article titled “Cutler a victim of his indifference.” The reporter,  Neil Hayes said, ““Jay Cutler’s medial collateral ligament is torn, and his reputation is dangling by sinew.” The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh added this in his story today, “Never has an NFL team been more relieved to announce its franchise quarterback suffered a tear in his knee ligament than the Bears were Monday at Halas Hall.”

Social media played a major role in the story going viral and web wide…

Here’s a SMALL sample. First, a fellow NFL player…

In football, you get a penalty for unnecessary roughness and “piling on.” But that sure didn’t stop the wave of anti-Cutler sentiment from sports commentators, journalists, other professional athletes and more. Many of those tweeting questioned Cutler’s toughness and commitment to his team.

Some of the other famous tweets came from NFL pros past and present included Deion Sanders.  And here’s one from ESPN TV analyst Mark Schlereth…

How did the story of a quarterback’s injured knee grow such legs?

It wasn’t the injury. It was the way it was handled. And the communication (or lack thereof) that caused this media frenzy still going strong now 48 hours into the news cycle.

In fact, a  search on Google for “Cutler + Quit” returning over 24,000 listings.  And a whopping 6322 related stories on the subject. And this is all in less than 2 days. Talk about a need for image management! Here’s what that looks like…

The other theme of all the negative publicity was questioning Cutler’s “toughness.”So I was curious to see what type of results the Google would display when I did a search for the phrase “Cutler + Toughness.” And that returned over 102,000 listings and 214 related articles.

After consuming print, media and online reports about the game and the story, I’ve come to the conclusion this entire episode is a great illustration of a PR/social media story that went horribly wrong.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned, but first let’s look at key PR blunders the Bears and their PR staff committed that didn’t help matter any.Granted, hindsight is 20/20. And I’m giving new meaning to the expression “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Yet an examination of the details and the chronology of the story reveals a classic case of image and message mismanagement as well as a slow crisis communications response. Here’s a great video overview from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk…

So, if nothing else, this incident is a great example of what NOT TO DO. It also provides some valuable  lessons on 1) how to prevent something like this happening again; and 2) some tips on how to blunt a fast moving story before it spins wildly out of control.

First, let’s look at the mistakes that were made…

5 PR Blunders: How The Bears Fumbled Their Quarterback Situation

First, like several others, I don’t think anyone should be fired over this. And in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to slip-up. But there are precedents about handling things like this so let’s go to the actual blunders…

PR Blunder #1: Failure to disclose the obvious

Cutler was injured. Bear’s management, team staff (including doctors) knew that Cutler wouldn’t be returning to the game. He status should have been made crystal clear. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk added, “”If he’s out, say he’s out. Don’t play games. Say the guy’s out. Say the guy’s not coming back. You’re not going to get a huge strategic advantage if the Packers thin there’s maybe a chance that Cutler’s coming back.”

Florio was also a guest on WSCR “The Score” a Chicago Sports Talk radio station. The host,  Laurence Holmes, added this to the conversation, ““As someone who’s there at the games, it bothers me that they even had him listed as questionable. Everyone knew after he finished that one drive in the third quarter that he was not coming back. At that point you say that Jay Cutler is OUT.”

To which Florio replied,  “That’s part of the PR effort. You’re playing that game, this is where that game blows up. Like, ‘Hey, maybe the Packers will think that Jay Cutler will be coming back. As if that will really give you a strategic edge.”

PR Blunder #2: Letting Cutler stay on the sideline

This opened up Cutler and the Bears to ongoing speculation and criticism in front a viewing audience of more than 50,000,000 people. During the game, cutaway shots of Cutler showed little emotion or even support for his fellow quarterbacks who had to play in his absence.

And with Cutler not on crutches or otherwise encumbered, it left the impression that he was a disinterested spectator while emotions were running high. Again, as Florio shared during his WSCR interview on January 24th, “Perception is reality. And that’s part of the problem here. The perception was permitted to be created. My bottom line on this whole thing is the PR staff, and these people, and there are multiple employees with every team that handle PR.

It’s not just sending out press releases for photo opportunities. The PR staff is charged with the responsibility of shaping and engineering the image of the team, the coaching staff, the front office and the entire organization.

There is one PR person, typically for each organization on the field on the sidelines. And I think that person ideally, and I’m not saying anyone did anything wrong here. This is the kind of thing where hindsight may be 20/20, and may be a good case study for future situations specifically involving the Bears.

But when you have a quarterback, who everyone knows what his reputation is for having that loose demeanor. The body language that projects is that he’s not interested. If you’re going to bring him out of the locker room, you’re going to take the risk that that’s exactly what’s going to play out for the Fox [TV] cameras to see.

And I think someone from the PR staff during that 12-minute you have during halftime should have gone to Lovie Smith and said look, ‘Do we really think he’s going to play? Because if we don’t think he’s going to play, we need to leave him in here.

We do not need to have him out on the sidelines with the Fox cameras watching every move he makes. Because you know how Jay Cutler is, I know how Jay Cutler is. We love him and accept him because of that but the rest of the county doesn’t. We gotta keep him in the locker room.’ And that’s what should have happened.”

PR Blunder #3: A slow and half-hearted Crisis Communication response

The “Cutler is a quitter” meme gained massive momentum for a variety of reasons. Here are a few…

One: the strong and vigorous defense of Cutler was either isolated or not well publicized compared to the avalanche of negative criticism.

Two: those who are seen as authorities, such as Coach Lovie Smith gave a tepid defense during his post game comments. It was nearly a full day later, during a team press conference where Smith, and General Manager Jerry Angelo were more outspoken in their defense of their quarterback.

Laurence Holmes of  WSCR, “The Score” said about the press conference, “They missed an opportunity today. The use of language is very important. You have the head coach of the Bears, while he correctly stated that Cutler had a sprained MCL.

I think it tells the story better that it’s a partial tear, considering that’s what it is. It’s another example of not fully managing the message. It bugged me a little bit because Cutler is getting killed and it feels as if the Bears are unprepared to handle it.”

David Haugh, in his article titled “Bears come to the defense of Cutler” added,  “As an organization, the Bears did Cutler no favors by waiting until Monday to use the words “sprained knee” and not getting out in front of the story to let us know how bad the injury was. The longer they let the image of Cutler standing stone-faced on the sidelines without a knee brace sink in without an announcement he was out, the more critics unfairly blasted away.”

PR Blunder #4: Cutler’s “no comment” comment

When Cutler was asked what he thought about other NFL players who were ripping him for not returning to the game, he said “No Comment.” This only fueled speculation rather than squelching it. A better response would have been something like, “Lets not rush to judgment without knowing the seriousness of the injury. If the situation were reversed, I’d sure give them the benefit of the doubt.”

In this case, a little bit of media training would go a long way. In fact, after Cutler gave his “no comment”  Sports Illustrated reporter Jim Trotter further added to the “lack of toughness” story by writing ,“Cutler appeared genuinely hurt when asked about the comments, saying: ‘No comment on that.’ He then turned his back to reporters, fiddled with some things on a shelf and bit his lip as tears welled.”

PR Blunder #5: Blaming the media

This blunder is a popular one, especially with politicians. The fact is the media will run with the story that’s getting the most traction. And playing the victim never got anyone anywhere. The day after press conference with Chicago’s coach Lovie Smith and General Manager Jerry Angelo, both were critical of the media.

Here’s an except from Angelo’s comments, “There are probably some old quarterbacks in the past, that if we had you as a media we would have probably heard some things about them and we wouldn’t have thought they were nice guys but they wound up in Canton.”

Angelo also said this during the press conference when addressing the media, “If you don’t have thick skin this is not the town to be in. And I’m not being disrespectful to anybody in this room. You have got jobs to do, you do your jobs. We have to deal with whatever adversity or pressure comes with the territory.”

In the past, the Chicago Bears brass has had an uneasy relationship with the local media. Smith in particular often seems annoyed at having to answer questions he doesn’t like receiving, or in the case of his post-game news conference, thought he had answered to his own satisfaction.

So what lessons can we learn from what’s happened ?

Here are four:

Lesson# 1: Perception is reality.
Image management matters.

Lesson #2: The media will default to the supporting narrative.
Your mission: change the narrative, or at least, deflect it.

Lesson #3: Be proactive, not reactive.
Know the person and the type of personality you’re dealing with. And plan accordingly.

Lesson #4: Use the right messaging via the right messenger.

To that last point, and as a closing thought, here again is Mike Florio from Pro Football Talk with an interesting observation on how to help Cutler and the Bears control, or at least, better influence the message…

“Something that draws the attention away from Cutler. Someone who steps up on his behalf that is so passionately. Brian Urlacher kinda did it, Sunday night. Something that would have made it on the SportsCenter infinite loop today.

That would have caused people to change their focus. From everything  the Maurice Jones-Drew’s of the world are saying. And all the other quarterbacks who have had injuries who are being compared to Jay Cutler. No matter what the Bears did they couldn’t shake the question of whether or not Jay Cutler cares.”

Now this his is one passionate, albeit disappointed Chicago Bears fan (yours truly) hoping the Bears not only learn from their PR mistakes. But also play a better game next time they have the chance!

What’s your comment on how this whole scenario unfolded? Which side are you on and why?


  • Marc Harty says:

    Just checked this evening and the Cutler story is still going strong. Here’s another story about the PR side of things:

  • Bud says:

    I live in Denver and watched Jay Cutler play for a few seasons. He has a great arm. On the other hand, I never thought he had the leadership qualities or the intangible to take the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
    Before the game I predicted that if it were a close hard hitting game, Jay the Bears would not survive.
    I am sorry for his injury, and I understand that the long run — for the player and the team — always has to be considered when a player is injured.
    I agree with your Point 2 above. No matter how badly he was injred, Jay just sat there on the bench wearing a cape. He did seem disinterested. He and the Bears would have been better off — from a PR standpoint — if they sent him to the locker room.

  • Andrew says:

    Interesting perspective and from a corporate viewpoint, I agree. However as a sports fan, I am not sure I want athletes coached on how to best communicate with the media. Because then we have the Tiger Woods type responses that he was famous for for years until it finally blew up on him. Only now are we just starting to get some real insight on Woods.

  • Icespicol says:

    I look at it this way, Marc: Rex Grossman never seemed to recover from his Super Bowl loss. The following season was his last chance (though I think fans had given up on him after his first string of bad games). We’ll see how Cutler comes back. I think fans believe he’s a better QB than Rex was. So he has a chance. How does PR fit into sport? Admittedly, a lot—I get it. Does Lovie care? No. Jay? No. They focus to a fault. Which is fine, if you can overcome the scrutiny. Should PR matter to them? I argue, no. To them, the proof is in the win column. Heck, fans wanted Lovie’s scalp the last two years, but he played through all that. Tough crowd up here.

    For what it’s worth, not all good QB’s can be Manning in front of a camera or on the sideline. But kudos to the guys with skills of world-class quality who are just there to play the games. I get that, too.

  • Marc Harty says:

    Hi Bud,

    Thanks for your reply. Your Broncos have their work cut out for them after the McDaniel’s mess.

    Sure, athletes aren’t the best role models. But my point is it would have saved everyone a lot of grief if just a few small management changes were made.

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Good point. I think athletes most often speak in cliche’s so you don’t get much anyway. My point was it was made a HUGE issue by the media, and was made worse by Cutler’s poor image. And all that took away from the real story. The Bears blew it!

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:


    Is that you? Didn’t you work or do work for the agency that handles the Bear’s account?

    And I do agree for sports what matter’s is wins and losses, not personalities. That being said, the Bears and Cutler could have saved themselves a ton of grief if they had just made a few tweaks to their executive decisions. Cutler is still going to be Cutler, he doesn’t seem to want to change. But the Bears, as his employer could have definitely done more to limit the damage.


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