When the fabled Montreal Canadiens NHL hockey team hired Randy Cunneyworth as their interim head coach in December, they knocked over a hornet’s nest of controversy so fierce that General Manager Pierre Gauthier – himself French Canadian – had to issue a rare public apology. The problem? Cunneyworth doesn’t speak French. In Quebec, a Canadian province proud of its French heritage, where learning French and English is mandated in schools and French is the official language, this was a faux pas of major proportions. Organized protests have been planned by fans and by nationalists political groups.
But this isn’t about political correctness; that’s a separate discussion. The politics of bi-lingual and bi-cultural Quebec are their own long-standing quagmire. And it didn’t help Cunneyworth that the team was off to a terrible start under his stewardship.
No, this is about forgetting who your audience is and ignoring your brand image: For those who don’t follow hockey, the Canadiens are known familiarly as “The Habs,” short for the French term “Les Habitants,” or Inhabitants. The team’s identity is inextricably tied to its French Canadian heritage. They haven’t had a coach who doesn’t speak French for the past 30 years. The team has promised its angry fans it will hire a permanent coach at the end of the year who is bi-lingual.
At CommCore we always remind our clients that what you say publicly has to be geared as much to your audience’s needs and expectations as to your own goals. It’s a standard axiom of effective communications that the Canadiens’ front office forgot or else chose to overlook. In his apology Gauthier tried to put the controversy to rest: “Having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very important and it’s something that will be part of our decision going forward.”
Question: If the team was in first place and headed to a “Coupe Stanley” final would there be as big a storm? Not quite as big, but it still would be a factor. We’ll be watching to see how the Canadiens’ fans react to the team for the rest of the season. Do you have any other examples of a similar tin ear mistake.