When Ozzie Guillén, manager of the rebranded Miami Marlins, inserted the proverbial foot-in-mouth during an interview with TIME magazine, where he stated, “I love Fidel Castro,” I immediately began to question the Marlins’ management strategy.
I thought, “Clearly this guy has no understanding of local politics. Clearly he has no understanding of what so many of us lived through in a Fidel-Castro-Cuban regime. Clearly the Marlins management doesn’t necessarily know what it’s doing to the brand.” I wasn’t alone.
To give you some quick background: What Guillén said is highly offensive to many Hispanics of Cuban origin, especially to those who are older. Cubans did not come to the U.S. looking for a better job or a better economic opportunity. Many lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists and professionals left their homes, careers and even families because of political oppression and the sheer lack of simple human rights — all attributed to Castro and his followers.
Just as recently as last month, during the Pope’s visit to Cuba, he reiterated how important it was to keep in mind human rights above all else in the island. He urged the Cuban people, “that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity.”
Having been personally affected by this communist regime, I was taken aback upon hearing about Guillen’s remarks. The fact that he was suspended for five games for his comment didn’t seem like “enough” to me initially. Then, I thought, “How could the Marlins public relations team not have provided such important market-sensitive information?”
I quickly gathered as much information as I could to read about Guillen’s faux pas. It was the talk of the town in Miami, leading every single news outlet’s top-of-page or news bulletin. And the city has been split on whether Guillén should submit his resignation or Marlins’ games should be boycotted.
Yes, I’d heard about Guillén’s professional accolades leading the Chicago White Sox to an unforgettable 2005 World Series championship. Yes, I’d heard that he was one of the few Hispanic Major League Baseball managers. Yes, I’d heard he was opinionated. But were his feelings so strong that he had to put his baseball club at risk?
Guillén has voiced his love for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez just as equally as he’s expressed his respect for Fidel Castro. The difference was where Guillén expressed his sentiments — he was previously in Chicago, where the Hispanic community is largely of Mexican-descent and has very little understanding of Venezuelan or Cuban politics
Let’s just say Guillén’s views are not kosher in the Venezuelan and Cuban communities in the U.S.
That said, this incident reminded me of two key values I learned early on when working as a reporter, which can easily be applied to public relations.
- Proximity. Every story has to have a local tie of some sort. In this case, this was hyper-local news that grew hyper-global (the story is still above-the-fold in Venezuela). Understanding the market that you’re addressing, especially as you’re building a brand, is crucial. Being sensitive to that market’s hot buttons is especially relevant. You don’t want to bring bacon to a Jewish Passover seder if you’ve been invited as a guest. Do your homework, and understand your audience.
- Freedom of speech. Regardless of how I personally felt about Guillén’s remarks, we live in a country that, thankfully, allows us to freely speak our minds. Had Guillén attended school in Cuba, he would’ve been taught otherwise, including how “Americans represent imperialist filth,” and how expressing your thoughts on religion, government, politics or, for that matter, brands, was “anti-Castro.” In essence, if Guillén were in Cuba and he would’ve expressed love or respect for any government outside of Cuba, he would have been beaten, jailed or possibly even killed. Luckily, he’s not there.
One thing is for sure: I now can’t wait to see the much-hyped Showtime series on the Miami Marlins to get the behind-the-scenes look at the Ozzie Guillén era.
Rosanna Fiske, APR, is immediate past chair of the Public Relations Society of America.