The Bears quarterback holds the dubious distinction of being the second-most-disliked player in the NFL, according to a recent poll by Nielsen and E-Poll Market Research. ESPN pundits deride him for the smallest offenses, and social media users roast him with their blogs and tweets.
This negativity is hurting Brand Cutler, and several PR professionals said it could affect his earning potential—and his legacy. “For better or for worse, we’re in a society that is image driven,” said Gregory Lee Hendricks, an executive at sports and entertainment marketing firm Matter in Chicago. “Athletes are brands, much more so than in the past.”
According to Hendricks, Cutler needs to define his brand and manage it accordingly. But there’s a problem, Hendricks said: “I don’t know what Jay’s brand is.”
The absence of a strong brand lets people shape their own opinions of him, fueled by images and stories in the media. Too bad for Cutler—the media often portrays him as a petulant jerk. They’ve shown him dress down a teammate and ignore his offensive coordinator, and they’ve pointed out that he voted for Mitt Romney—in Obama’s home city. Cameras love to catch him scowling, mouthing obscenities to fans, and looking aloof. “Americans tend to judge a book by its cover, and Jay has not helped with that,” said Aaron Perlut, a St. Louis PR man whose client roster has included sports teams.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, owns his brand—and it’s a valuable one. “He succeeded on the field, bringing a Super Bowl to Green Bay, but also has done a good job of staying conscious about his image with Packers fans in Wisconsin,” Hendricks said. Off the field, Rodgers has opened a restaurant in Milwaukee, attends Brewers and Bucks games, and has established local charities. Drew Brees is another good example. The New Orleans Saints quarterback brought home a Super Bowl, while establishing his image as a person who cares about his fans and the city in which he plays.
A Super Bowl would solve a lot of Cutler’s PR problems, the PR executives said. But it’s not the only solution.
Brand Cutler’s rehab can start small. “Cutler needs to be aware of his body language—that would go a long way,” Hendricks said. “If you read an interview, he’s saying the right things.” Beyond his gestures and facial expressions, Cutler, who is an intensely private person, needs to introduce himself to the public. “Jay does a lot of great things,” said Chicago-based media relations specialist Bobby Chilver. “He does a lot of work with the diabetes foundations; he’s gone to Kenya.”
It’s true, he’s been to Kenya with fianceé Kristin Cavallari to support the nonprofit group One Kid One World. At home, his namesake foundation supports inner-city youth and people suffering from diabetes. He’s also proven his toughness by absorbing countless big hits and coming back from injury. And that’s not all: His friendship with wide receiver Brandon Marshall and their terrific play together has been the season’s most satisfying storyline.
So Cutler has good material. But he’s not doing enough with it.
“He should work with some reporters so they can find out who he really is,” said Michelle Damico, the CEO of a communications agency in Chicago. “I’m sure he has relationship with a few reporters; offer them an inside view of the real Jay Cutler, and agree to do it in an unfettered way.” Chilver added: “All it takes is one good story in the media.”
It would also serve Cutler well to steal a page from the playbooks of Rodgers and Brees by strengthening his ties to the community. “He should totally ingrain himself in the city, where he’s talking about how much he loves it, participating in civic events, and serving as an ambassador for the city,” Hendricks said. “If you love this city, you get a lot of points in the good will bank. Chicagoans love that…and most importantly getting back to winning.”
After leading the Bears to a win against the Vikings three weeks ago, Cutler scored a few points in the blogosphere, most notably from the Gawker-owned sports blog Deadspin. “Cutler returned to a Bears team that had been blown out the previous week and turned it into a football team worth watching,” writes Deadspin’s Tom Ley. “He was the game.” But when the Bears lose, as they did again Sunday in Minnesota, no one tosses Cutler any bouquets.
If the Bears beat the Packers next week and go on to the Super Bowl, however improbable that may seem at the moment, it would turn most of Cutler’s negatives into positives. Most…but perhaps not all. It would still help if Cutler smiled more and harrumphed less and, in general, acted a bit more as if he cared about the fans and the city of Chicago.
“It has unquestionably impacted the perception of him with both his NFL peers as well as with corporate America,” Perlut said. “A player with his skill and the market size of Chicago should have a higher profile than Cutler has.”
“It comes down to what this player wants his legacy to be,” he continued. “Does he want it to be about winning football games only, or about his contributions to the league and the community in which he lives?”