After his horse lost the third race in his quest for the Triple Crown, co-owner Steve Coburn spent two days ranting and whining. Frankly, it was embarrassing to watch. On Day Three, he finally apologized. “I’m very ashamed of myself. I needed to apologize to a lot of people.” Could all this have been avoided?
The whole idea of “key messaging” in corporate communications is to know exactly what you want to convey to whom and how. It’s that simple, but only if you adhere to the formula. Straying from message discipline leads to trouble every time.
Before the race, Coburn had the world in his hands. We loved his horse, California Chrome, and were enchanted by the fairy-tale story of the horse’s humble breeding and his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Coburn, a Wilfred Brimley look-alike, presented himself as smart as he was down-to-earth.
Prior to the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, Coburn’s messaging appeared clear:
• We love our horse, too.
• He’s always been a shouldn’t-even-be-here long shot with a big heart.
• Despite our recent success, we’re humble, grateful and proud.
All good. Until his horse lost. Then Coburn lost his cool and any pretense of message discipline. He called his opponents “cheaters” and “cowards.” He ranted to whomever would listen, including a national TV audience until the embarrassed announcer slipped away from the interview.
Coburn did have a point. In a perfect world, the 20 horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three, would have been the field in both the Preakness and the Belmont. Under those conditions, the horse winning all three would be acclaimed as one of the best of all time.
But that’s not how it works under the accepted rules of horse racing. Any owner wishing to rest his horse until the third and most demanding race is free to do so.
Coburn knows how the game is played. After California Chrome lost the Belmont, Coburn need a hefty dose of message discipline, especially important under stress:
• He’s a game horse that simple wasn’t up to the endurance test that is the Belmont.
• We still love him, and love everyone who was cheering for him.
• As the song from the 70s said, “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
Instead, he ranted, turning sour his feel-good franchise. His apology changed nothing. The damage was done for all time.
It’s a lesson (and key message) with ancient roots: Be magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat. And stick to the messaging that has served you well, especially when you’re under stress.