NFL PR: Protest Is On The Clock

For almost two years, protests during the national anthem before the game have been a growing PR challenge for the National Football League. With the 2018 NFL draft beginning today in Dallas, speculation has intensified about whether the demonstrations will continue through the 2018 season and how the league will manage them.

Since 2015, NFL ratings have declined 8% in 2016 and almost 10% last season. During the 2017 season, unfavorability among fans fell to 32% — note that these are fans of the sport who watched at least two games. Though many factors can contribute to such a drop, surely the relentless public controversy hasn’t helped the situation.

Reputation and ratings are down, yet profits continue to rise. This poses a question for an organization that raked in about $14 billion in revenue in 2017. How much does the NFL really care about its tarnished image? Is the league too big to worry?

The answer seems to be no. Clearly, the league’s reputation management has moved beyond its annual kids’ “Punt, Pass, & Kick” competition. We took a look at some of commissioner Roger Goodell’s public statements over the past couple of years in response to the protests to analyze how well its communications strategy has worked.

NFL’s initial response was tepid

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, Roger Goodell’s communication was fairly critical of the protest but sought to find a middle ground. He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing,” while offering a morsel of empathy for the social movement. This broad message, “I support our players when they want to see change in society” came off as a bit generic.
Goodell’s statement reinforced the NFL’s alignment with quintessential American values — the flag, freedom, and the military. Given that NFL fan demographics skew middle-aged male, high-income, and white, it’s not surprising that football would play it safe. But at the time of the initial statement, it was still early, and Goodell probably thought the protests would fade.

The stakes rose after Kaepernick lost his job. The 2017 season began without him, but not without controversy. Players, coaches, celebrities, politicians, and fans all said their piece. Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins famously urged players to speak out in Kaepernick’s defense.

The NFL offered more measured responses as the controversy grew. In August, Goodell said, “The national anthem is a special moment to me… But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” It was an accommodation to both sides but like most such statements, it didn’t convince anyone. Things really escalated when the president weighed in a more direct, and far more negative, way. Trump blasted the protesters in a widely reported speech, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

After that, Goodell was forced into a defensive mode, decrying the comments as divisive and warning that they “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” The response unified the fracturing NFL for a hot second.

Goodell takes decisive action

In late 2017, the league sent a letter to NFL owners asking them to require players to stand during the anthem. Goodell wrote, “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.” At the ensuing press conference, the commissioner delivered the clearest messaging yet on the issue. He maintained that players should stand during the anthem. the action was decisive and – the NFL hoped – patriotic.
He then spoke about trying to “deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they are protesting.” These statements communicated greater empathy than in the past, but, more importantly, seemed to take a measure of responsibility in finding solutions to the crisis. The NFL’s position had evolved, and the organization’s next actions showed greater urgency.

The NFL’s answer: a social justice initiative

In January 2018, Goodell trumpeted a landmark seven-year,deal with the Players Coalition, wherein the coalition agreed to end the protests and focus on an unprecedented $89 million social justice initiative. From a corporate citizenship/community relations point of view, the initiative moves well beyond PR expediency. The NFL executives collaborated with the players on the project, helping to mollify any antagonism and sharing responsibility. In accompanying public statements, the league admitted that it failed to understand the depth of the issue for many players, a candid admission of its mistakes. The announcement remains controversial, and there’s no guarantee that some players won’t protest in the future, but it marks a major commitment  as well as the first truly unifying step by the league.

The NFL’s next play

Unquestionably, this corporate crisis has perplexed the league’s executives, and the social justice initiative comes very late in the game. The best outcome would involve concrete results that could be showcased in a serious, non-self-congratulatory manner. The NFL PR team seems to have learned from its mistakes, guiding the organization through these tough times while maintaining its association with traditional American values.
There are still many reputation land mines for the league to fight,  including brain injuries among players, violence against women and other issues. But it is at last making progress in tackling the painful and divisive problem of racial justice with the right kind of constructive action.

The NFL’s Black Eye Offers Lesson In Crisis PR

For the NFL, the (reputation) hits just keep on coming.  Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press briefing following the release of the notorious Ray Rice videotape in which he knocks then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious is a lesson in crisis PR, but mostly about what not to do. Here are some of the more instructive learnings from the NFL’s efforts to manage its battered reputation. In this case, the errors outnumber the wins, starting with these “Don’ts”:

In the event of a crisis, do NOT:

Hope that you can run out the clock. Goodell waited ten days to fully address the situation, which was about 9 days too many, given its seriousness and the credibility stakes. Although it’s not always realistic to face the press right away because facts must be gathered, the delay allowed the situation to fester, and it made the League look like it’s hiding something.

Go for deniability. The League handed down that initial two-game suspension for Rice based on the part of the videotape that shows him dragging an unconscious Palmer out of a hotel elevator. It later claimed to lack full knowledge of what had happened a few seconds earlier. But even if Goodell never actually saw the full videotape, his story doesn’t stand up. Anyone who wanted it could have obtained it. It’s clear that Goodell either didn’t want to know, or wasn’t willing to accept responsibility once he did know.

Ignore the victims. Goodell’s statement on Friday was targeted more to the team owners than the NFL’s fans or the many victims of domestic violence at the hands of players over the years.  And though it’s unclear if the League pressed Palmer to express regret about “her role in the situation,” her public apology – issued well before Goodell opted to speak to the press – was embarrassing and sad, and it reinforced the NFL’s lack of accountability.

Ignore stakeholders. It’s impossible to know if the NFL tried to tap major sponsors to unveil its proposed changes, or if it previewed the information with them, but it’s a good idea. When Goodell was asked about sponsors, he expressed hope that they would stick with the League, only to have P&G drop its breast cancer awareness tie-in shortly thereafter.

Avoid objective scrutiny. The investigation led by former FBI head Robert Mueller, whose firm has ties to the NFL, made the League look like it was retreating into a protective huddle. It should have been more sensitive to the optics here at the very least.

Don’t get emotional. Showing anger or regret in a public situation can be tricky, but a little passion can go a long way in showing you care. Goodell’s robotic delivery didn’t do much to convince observers that he’s truly invested in tackling the problem or its cost in pain and suffering.

Here are some things that Goodell did right:

Admit mistakes. “I got it wrong,” were the Commissioner’s words. It may be too little, too late, but admitting to the wrong call is the first step in limiting reputation damage.

Outline the fix.  Goodell followed the classic crisis PR playbook by outlining changes to the League’s personal conduct policy, educational programs, and relationships with two major domestic violence organizations. He also gave a timetable for the plans, which is vital to restoring credibility.

Despite his efforts, it looks like the NFL will only move past this latest reputation crisis when Goodell steps down or is sacked. TMZ’s easy acquisition of the “rest” of the videotape has badly damaged the League’s credibility. What’s more, the Commissioner’s actions just weren’t enough to satisfy the chorus of media and advocates determined to hold the NFL accountable for the Rice scandal, as well as its history of lenience in the wake of a years-long disgrace.

Lessons Learned From Football’s Replacement Referee Debacle

By guest blogger George Drucker

No, it wasn’t a touchdown. And the lack of professionalism among the “replacement” referees caused one of the greatest uproars in the history of sports. It could have led to a major crisis in public confidence for the NFL.

Professionalism can never be taken for granted. It applies to referees . . . and it applies to public relations practitioners, particularly when the pressure’s on.

Here are some ways that maintaining professionalism in high-stress situations can dial back the tension, save a relationship and increase your value to a client or colleague. Please consider them or chances are you’ll just fumble away the opportunity to neutralize or negate an escalating situation.

Reflect before you react.
Allow the heat of the moment to simmer down while you think about every possible scenario and its possible consequences before moving forward.

Don’t go on the defensive.
If you’re wrong, that means with an apology. Most people appreciate contrition. Those who accept and “fess up” to responsibility tend to be more readily forgiven.

Think about who will “quarterback” the situation.
Who responds in a negative situation can be as important as the information and messages conveyed. The Commissioner of the NFL had greater impact and credibility than the head of referees.

Consider a team “shake-up”
Although no one member may be at fault for a certain snafu, sometimes fresh faces produce positive change.

Please share with us any ways that you have scored big by applying some cool-headed professionalism to a heated situation.

What The NFL Can Teach PR Pros

The Super Bowl is this Sunday, and football is on everyone’s mind.  Whether you’re a Patriots fan, Giants fan, or don’t even know what a field goal is, chances are you‘ll be watching this weekend.  Sports can teach us a lot about life in the PR world.  Here are just a few of the reasons why.
Study the Film

NFL teams spend an incredible amount of time studying their opponents, watching film and learning exactly what to expect in any situation.  This kind of competitor analysis is needed in PR as well.  Clients want to know where the competition is gaining exposure, and you need to know exactly what’s happening in that industry.

It Takes 53 Men to Win the Super Bowl

You can’t win a game with one player.  The quarterback needs a strong line blocking for him, reliable receivers, and an aggressive defense.  The same goes for a PR team.  Whether you’re the account supervisor, responsible for media relations, social media, or monitoring, every role is essential to getting the job done, and accountability is necessary.

Putting in the time

Tom Brady and Eli Manning didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become world class athletes.  It takes a life time of hard work, studying, and practice.  The same is necessary for PR pros (most won’t be able to successfully pitch The New York Times on their first day as an intern.)  Experience means everything in this industry and without putting the necessary time in you’ll never get the results you’re looking for.

Coaching is everything

Every office environment needs structure.  While the structure of a PR agency may not be as rigid as that of an NFL organization, the concept is similar.  It starts from the top with the head coach or CEO providing guidance and making personnel decisions, and trickles down, with everyone knowing their own responsibilities and where they fit in.
What other lessons could we learn from the NFL? And most importantly, who’s your pick for Sunday?