So I Hear You Like Long Winded Editorials: Dan Lobring and Atul Khosla in the Lion’s Den

If you’ve talked to me for more than five minutes, you know I’m a pretty no-bullshit person. I don’t have a lot of patience for excuses and am pretty damn cynical about anything that comes out of a PR person’s mouth. I may be a little idealistic sometimes, but I’m never going to toe the party line or feed you a load of crap because it’s “easy”.

So the ISA meeting Wednesday night. We all knew this was going to be interesting, and in a move that will surprise absolutely no one, I found myself doing a lot of talking. Atul Khosla and Dan Lobring (looking like a kicked puppy, but he swears that’s just how he looks) were in attendance as the guests of honor. Or dishonor, as the case may be.

I assume I can skip over the minutia of the ISA board business and get the the juicy part that we were all waiting for. The open discussion. The firing squad fun hour, if you will.

AK put himself on a chair in the middle of the room. I mention this because that’s a vulnerable position to be in when you’re facing an unfriendly crowd. He’s a pro, I’ll give him that. He’s well-spoken, and an attentive listener, and very personable. He’s not a bad guy. I’d have a drink with him – in fact, I did. But irregardless. The discussion started with some fairly benign talk, but it was clear The Editorial Issue was looming over the room like a B-52 with a full payload.

I brought up the White Party incident as an example of the lack of communication or active listening apparent from the front office. This, unsurprisingly, took a wandering tangent into discussing whether it was sexist or not, which as you know I could talk about all day. I was not pleased with AK’s position, or indeed the positions of a few others in the room, when the issue of sexism was brought up. I will paraphrase here, but the response from AK was essentially “we didn’t mean for it to be sexist, so it wasn’t sexist, and it was an adult-oriented party anyway.”

This brings up three issues, all of which are important to the issues that have been plaguing our little family for the past month. First, there’s the issue of intent vs reception. A basic principle of not only marketing, but basic communication, is that the intent doesn’t matter half as much as the reception. This seems fairly straightforward – even if you don’t intend for something to be offensive, if a large group of people are offended by it, the thing is offensive. This aspect was eventually cleared up, but AK maintained his position that it wasn’t sexist. Not the way to get in my good books, AK.

The second issue that was raised is one of image. When AK and others in the room pointed out that it was an adult-oriented party and therefore the “edgy” marketing strategy was appropriate, they failed to take into account how the existence of official club photographs change the context and the audience of that “edgy” marketing stunt. When a photo is taken and posted on Facebook and Twitter of women’s bodies being used as props in a photo booth, it becomes a piece of marketing that you are using outside the context of an “adult-oriented” party. It becomes something I have to explain to the 11 year old girls I know who were looking through those photo albums to see their favorite players. It becomes something I have to explain to people who have just heard me talk about how welcoming and inclusive this club is.

The third issue is the issue of reaction. It was clear from the moment that photograph hit the internet that a vocal part of the Fire fandom and Section 8 weren’t happy about it. There were many different reasons, from sexism to appropriateness to simply not wanting our club represented in that way, all of which were valid, clearly expressed, and no doubt heard by people working in the front office. Yet there was no acknowledgment of that fact. I told AK that ideally, the acknowledgment would be “yes, we did that, we fucked up, we won’t do it again,” but honestly? Even getting a “we hear you and we don’t care because we don’t think we have anything to apologize for” would be better than nothing. I’d rather have a direct target for my rage than to be completely ignored.

The issues of image and the relationship between the club, the front office, and the supporters were expressed by multiple people in a variety of ways. I direct you to the great Storify round-up here for a little more detail if you missed it on twitter the first time. The tone was respectful the entire meeting, and the goal was clearly to engage in a meaningful dialogue. So here’s where I’m going to dip deep into my purple prose and wax poetic about what, exactly, our point was.

I know people want to decry their appearance as a PR ploy or ass-kissing, but you know what? I’m okay with that. I realize this is a business and a job for them, and they may not – now or ever – have the same deep emotional connection to this club that we do. That’s okay. By coming and talking to us, and at least paying lip service to learning from their mistakes, they are, to some degree, owning their mistakes and learning what is and isn’t acceptable as representatives of the Chicago Fire.
Because, as I told them, and as Josue Gomez told them, and many other people in the room told them – the club represents the Section and the Section represents the club. We’re in this together. We’re more than happy to support the Fire and will happily be loud and enthusiastic free PR for the front office, but in return, the front office needs to be good PR for us. When an editorial is posted calling out even a small minority of fans, people outside the Fire community don’t think it was a problem in the club seats, or the party deck. They think it’s a problem in Section 8, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We emphasized that one of the roles of the ISA is to work with the front office to deal with issues of safety and fan culture in and out of the stadium. In continuing the “Fire Family” analogy, we communicated the importance of not airing our dirty laundry to the world. Previous safety and security incidents that have been handled “in-house” were referenced as examples of the effectiveness of this strategy.

Atul Khosla and Dan Lobring are new. There’s nothing wrong with being new. The problem, I think, is that they didn’t really understand what being part of the Fire – being part of a culture of soccer support – is about until now, and how our market and community differs from pretty much any other major sports franchise or product. I think they’re learning that. I hope they’re learning that.

Having these direct lines and outlets of communication is vital to the success of both the Chicago Fire and Section 8 as organizations. It was stressed that we must behave like the major-league franchise we are, and that we must present if not a completely united front, at least a front that is seen as strong, and proactive, and working together towards the same ends with the same values of tradition, honor, and passion.

I mention that these incidents – specifically the editorial – are being treated now as learning opportunities by AK and Lobring, and by extension the ownership at large. I mention this repeatedly because they mentioned it repeatedly, and that’s a good thing. They have things to learn, and we can help them learn those things. However, by viewing these incidents as “learning opportunities”, they also accept the responsibility that they must learn from them, or we will be more than justified in holding them accountable.

While the meeting itself was, by and large, civil, I have to confess to some minor annoyance after checking Twitter. Immediately following the meeting, my timeline was inundated with people who hadn’t been at the meeting, tweeting like they had been at the meeting. Look, I get that a lot of people can’t be at meetings, because of distance, or other commitments, or whatever. Hell, I don’t get to many myself because I’ve had Wednesday night classes for the last four semesters running. You don’t have to show up to ISA meetings for your opinions to be valid and worthwhile. In my annoyance I worded my chastising tweet poorly, and I apologize for that.

But despite the valiant and commendable effort made by board members to accurately live-tweet the proceedings, this was the sort of multi-layered and complex conversation that is really hard to get across in 140 characters. And I saw a whole lot of people just seeing what they wanted to see, and digging themselves deeper into an Us vs Them mentality.

I’ll disclaim this again, because I want to make my meaning perfectly clear: I’m not here to kiss the ass of the front office. I’m here to support the Fire. And the front office did create an Us vs Them mentality. That’s on them. But we don’t have to play into it. I’m going to repeat this roughly nine thousand times, but we’re all here for the same reason. I don’t care if you have tickets in the club seats. I don’t care what supporter’s group you’re part of. I don’t care if you’re at every game or if you only go to one or two a year. I don’t even care if you’re only here because you work in the front office for a paycheck. Our job as a community, as a family, is to support the Fire both during games and to the world at large. The best way to do that is to work together.

Communicating isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes more than tweets, or petitions, or phone calls. Sometimes you have to show up in person and look someone in the eye before they start to understand where you’re coming from. I’m not happy with many of the answers AK gave to the questions from the group. I have no guarantee that he meant a word he was saying. But my purpose here isn’t to be angry and self-righteous (I know, coming from me that’s a pretty big statement). My purpose – our purpose – is to support the Fire, to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere everywhere we go, and to represent our city and our club with honor and pride. That’s hard to do when we’re all squabbling like kids on the playground.

That’s not to say I won’t get angry. You’ll no doubt be seeing more capslock tweeting and podcast shouting from me. I expect to see it from the rest of the Fire family as well. That’s good. That means we care. But there comes a point when you have to take a deep breath and reach across the aisle to move forward to make this club and these supporters the best they can be. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe this will happen again. Probably it will. Shit happens. Bad owners happen. PR disasters happen. We learn. We make ourselves better.

And if we don’t? If the front office doesn’t? Well. Then we can talk about storming the Bastille.