The NFL offseason is an interesting beast. The media and fans are so starved for stories during the month of June that some of them get blown way out of proportion. That was the case when Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis fired the PR director Zak Gilbert after one year on the job.
The media narrative goes something like this:
- Davis fired a guy that was hired by Reggie McKenzie, which puts everyone in the organization on notice.
- Davis fired a guy that had brought the Raiders' media relations out of the dark ages and into the 21st century. Gilbert was a symbol of the new era of football in Oakland and his firing indicates a possible return to draconian media policies.
- Davis fired a guy solely because of an article in Sports Illustrated that painted his deceased father in a negative light.
From the majority of the media’s perspective, there was no reason to fire Gilbert. Of course, my background working in public relations and the corporate world affords me a better perspective. There is no reason to freak out about the firing of Gilbert.
Of all people, I should be the one freaking out about the sudden change. I had developed a good professional relationship with Gilbert, attended training camp last year and was treated as an equal with the traditional print media. There is no guarantee the new PR director will be as accommodating.
To understand this firing, you need a little perspective of what happens behind the scenes. The PR director’s job description is to control the media’s perception of the organization. He must build a relationship with the media in order to spread an organizational message.
McKenzie hired Gilbert last year, even though the media relations department does not fall under football operations. Gilbert worked with McKenzie in Green Bay, so the two had a history.
The blame for the team’s 2012 season was placed squarely and deservedly on Al Davis by the media, which kept McKenzie mostly blameless for the mistakes he made as a rookie general manager. The media coverage was also positive for the first time in years, so Gilbert was theoretically doing a good job.
However, Gilbert got close with the media and sat idly as publications continued to rip the owner’s late father and praise McKenzie. Per Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Gilbert was fired because of the Sports Illustrated article.
If Mark Davis really fired Gilbert for one article, he has no business owning an NFL team, but we all know there was more to it. Gilbert didn’t defend the legacy of the owner’s father with the fervor that was expected throughout his one year on the job, even if there was little he could have done to change an article or the facts presented.
Some would see Gilbert's positive relationship with the media as a good thing. However, there is a difference between doing a good job and making sure your superior thinks you are doing a good job.
Gilbert’s connection with the media likely made Davis uncomfortable, especially when he didn’t feel the right message was getting out. The message was that McKenzie was cleaning up a mess, which was accurate even by Davis’ own admission. But just because Davis admitted it, doesn’t mean that was the prevailing message he wanted to convey to the public.
There’s a reason that Davis also forced Amy Trask to resign: he wants to put his stamp on the team. This is commonplace when regimes change. Davis has taken a slow and steady approach to the business side, realizing that the football side was much more important in Year 1.
Neither forcing Trask to resign or firing Gilbert suggest that he’s going to start meddling in football operations or that the football side is on notice. Davis has maintained that he will give McKenzie time and he is listening to the advice of guys like John Madden, Ron Wolf and Ken Herock. But like he said in the Sports Illustrated article, though McKenzie is his guy, that's not the case with everyone in the organization.
Gilbert was McKenzie’s guy, not Davis’ guy. The fact that Davis allowed McKenzie to hire Gilbert was a rookie mistake that compares similarly to McKenzie allowing Dennis Allen to hire Greg Knapp as the offensive coordinator last year. It’s just easier to qualify Knapp’s performance than Gilbert’s performance.
The media access was definitely improved under Gilbert, but that is really a secondary job function. It was almost inevitable that the Raiders would give more access once Al Davis died; just because Gilbert made it easy doesn’t mean that it's as vital as the media has made it out to be.
Access is given to garner good will with the media more than anything else. The fans enjoy the additional coverage, but the team usually finds it to be a bit bothersome. There is a myth that good media access is somehow vital to the success of a team; Bill Belichick has proven otherwise for years.
The firing of Gilbert really isn’t as important as the person hired to replace him. The media has already jumped to the conclusion that the Raiders’ PR policies will go in reverse, and maybe they will, but that is entirely unknown at this point.
Even the old media policies didn’t really impact the Raiders on the field. In some instances, those policies are what developed the “us against the NFL” mentality of the Raider Nation. Many Raiders fans will tell it’s something they love about being a fan.
Gilbert was a good guy and good at his job, but his firing doesn’t indicate anything more than a failure to please the man that signed his paychecks. The Sports Illustrated article was neither the first, nor the last article that will paint Al Davis in a negative light, and Mark Davis isn’t going to fire the PR director every time such a story is written.
The story reminds me when McKenzie fired several longtime Raiders scouts. At the time, there was a some media hubbub about it, but after several months no one remembers it even happened. McKenzie rebuilt the scouting department with guys he trusts.
If Davis no longer trusted Gilbert, it didn't really matter how good he was at his job.