The Many Sins of the NFL’s PR Team

Posted on September 12th, 2014

The NFL has done a grave disservice to communications professionals around the world. It’s widely felt that flaks are soulless trend fuckers that “find opportunity” in tragic deaths or “spin” articles to keep unwanted negative attention from paying clients. All of these fears and stereotypes were confirmed as the NFL bungled its way through the entire Ray Rice case.

Almost from the word go, the NFL mishandled the Rice domestic abuse case with an alarming lack of empathy and understanding of public sentiment. As a lifelong optimist, I’m here to share the good news: there are many crisis communication lessons to be learned.

Roger Goodell

Lesson #1: Never Underestimate the Power of Multimedia in Driving a Story

The pivotal factor in the Ray Rice case were the videos. There have been 83 instances of domestic violence involving NFL players since 2000 but none were captured and viewed to the degree of Rice pulling his unconscious fiancée from the Revel Casino elevator. It could be argued that Terrell Suggs, Rice’s teammate, performed a more egregious act when he poured bleach over his wife and infant son during a fit of rage. Both are heinous, deplorable acts. Suggs didn’t miss a single down of football, however, because the matter was settled out of court. Rice’s video humanized the story and made it tangible for the millions that watched the savage act. This wasn’t a name on a police blotter any more; this was a person rendered unconscious by the person she loved.

Lesson #2: Manage Your Brand’s Narrative

During a crisis, you can’t act like nothing is happening. It’s time to circle your communications wagons: cancel any scheduled social posts, cut off your AdWords budget and delay any pending coverage (if possible). Anything that is released from the company will only be viewed through the scope of your current crisis and will be derided by the public.

Rice’s 2-game suspension was announced on July 25 amidst a public roar of anger and resentment. Before the news cycle had finished on the Rice story, the NFL made a huge error when it conducted “business as usual” and announced Josh Gordon’s season-long suspension (16 games) for testing positive for marijuana. The disparity between these two punishments gave the story new legs as reporters stopped focusing on Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case and instead began to pry into the NFL’s systemic disciplinary issues. The media and public saw one player’s videotaped assault on his fiancée penalized less harshly than a dude who smoked a joint. When brands are under fire, they need to understand that all external communications are going to be heavily scrutinized and incorporated into the public narrative regardless of their relevance to one another.

Lesson #3: Don’t Fucking Lie

When TMZ released the graphic video of Rice actually striking his wife, NFL officials said that they hadn’t seen the tape. This statement was outright stupid because it created two unfavorable narratives: either the league looked stupid for rendering Rice’s discipline without viewing all of the evidence (best-case scenario) or the league was lying to the public.

Crisis communications shouldn’t operate within an “if/then” model. Complete transparency should be the goal during a crisis. Assume someone has an axe to grind with your organization or a reporter has a friend working within the company. The truth is inevitable so get out in front of a bad situation by not lying. Brands – particularly global brands – are remarkably thin-skinned at times. Rather than trying to avoid any negative publicity with a few “white lies,” buck up and take a short-term PR hit. Even today, Sept. 12, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is trying to back up his claim that he never saw the full assault tape because he didn’t want to poke holes in Janay Rice’s story because he felt it was “insensitive.” It’s almost cliché: the league has painted itself into a corner because it is forced to lie to cover up for earlier lies. It’s comical to the point where the Benny Hill theme music should be played under any public statement Goodell makes moving forward.


Lesson #4: Speed is Not Your Friend

A mistake that many companies make during crises is to issue statements or resolutions without fully understanding the situation. The NFL was shocked at the overwhelming negative sentiment that resulted from their (inadequate) 2-game suspension for Rice. They’ve been on their heels ever since and have done almost nothing to slow down the news cycle around this story. The NFL comms team needed to re-evaluate their strategy to accommodate the public outcry. The league needed to take a Twix moment and regroup.

The trade-off to patience is that your organization is going to take some heat for not being responsive. It’s tough to face down a torch-carrying mob clamoring for insights “RIGHT NOW!” but a necessity to properly assess the situation and your strategy. Think of it in the context of Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Everyone is screaming for him to finish his latest book but he’s holding firm because he wants it to live up to the quality of its predecessors. If he rushes the book and it sucks, he will lose all of the great momentum he built with the book and HBO series. He’s tarnished his brand because of a fake deadline people are holding him to. It’s the same with communications plans. If you are only reacting to today’s story angles, you’re bound to make mistakes, overlook something and set yourself up for tomorrow’s headlines. I’d much rather my clients take a public beating for not being immediately available to comment on a developing situation than mismanage the public’s expectations and exacerbate an already bad situation.

Fancred, America Online and the Belleville Bulls

Posted on September 4th, 2014

When I was fifteen I had a friend and teammate leave to go play for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). To keep track of him I would dialup the portal to the internet, America Online, and scour OHL and team specific message boards for game information and stats. I would join late night OHL chat rooms to talk with what I believed/hoped to be female hockey fans. This was in 1994-1995.

Twenty years later our online sports experiences have hardly changed. To follow teams I have to go to specific team or league pages. Or even worse go to, whose online strategy mirrors their broadcast ethos, cover Lebron and Manziel. Facebook an option? Sure, if you want a side of sports with a heaping main dish of babies, religion and your friends’ parent’s politics. In all these situations content is dictated to you and there is limited engagement. So being a multi-sport, multi-team fan still becomes this fragmented clusterf#ck of searching for content and life.


When David Knies (Breakaway’s Chief of Strategy) first introduced me to Fancred I have to admit I cringed, “Another social network, really?” (The irony is not lost on me that I’m commenting on my social media fatigue and hater feelings towards the self aggrandizing, narcissistic online culture in an online blog).

David had been working with Fancred founder Kash Razzaghi and his team on branding, strategy and positioning. As is often the case, our brand development work with companies at various stages leads to insights, which can often lead to actionable partnerships within our network, capital infusion (if needed) and on-going services. The mantra at Breakaway and its eco-system is to help build and develop brands. With our own Fancred profiles and David’s and our team’s insights we met with Kash and quickly realized that this is indeed something very different, and potentially solving a real need for a massive market with enthusiastic consumers.

Now I can “follow” the NHL, the Bruins, Capitals, Flames, Detroit Tigers, Bayern Munich, World Cup, Patriots, Packers, Union College Dutchmen and F1 racing; fragmented sports-related content neatly organized in one place from other fans, bloggers, analysts etc. I can engage in some trash talk during games or just browse pre-game and post game content.

Of course, being an early stage company some of these communities are still small, and with scale Fancred will need to ensure the content stays sports focused, but it is exciting to invest and back a strong team developing an online home for sports enthusiasts. We are finally witnessing an evolution beyond message boards, Facebook and America Online.

Even Though I Finished 22,545th – You Overwhelmed Me, Boston.

Posted on April 29th, 2014

I finished my 3rd Boston Marathon last Monday and can only compare the experience to what it must feel like being on a duck boat during a Boston championship parade. Overwhelming. I lost track of the number of times that I looked into the crowds and was completely overcome by the outpouring of emotion and goodwill.

Because there’s nothing like witnessing millions of people coming together to form something bigger. When the sum is much greater than the parts. Like watching your children grow up and do things you always hoped they would. I moved to Boston in 1994 and for years, the most unifying thing I saw in New England was a shared hatred and jealousy of things from New York. The Yankees. Derek Jeter. The financial services, publishing, fashion, media and other major industries. No matter what great things happened here, the region never seemed to shake its underdog mentality. The Sox, Patriots, Celtics + Bruins championships of the past decade started to pop this bubble – especially the Sox breaking the curse in 2004 – but what I saw on Marathon Monday was something bigger.

As the adidas campaign said, “We All Run Boston.” This city and region came together as it hasn’t since the Revolutionary War to take back what it had taken away from them and created something bigger at the same time. Something that the world overwhelmingly wanted to be part of. I saw reporters, runners, spectators, families, tourists and dignitaries from all over the world on Monday.

You know from the news that the crowds were enormous and estimated at over a million. Five deep on every barricade and sidewalk all the way to the finish line and up in trees on Comm Ave. Screaming, cheering and willing the field of runners on. Soldiers, police, armed patrols, technology on the ground, helicopters in the sky and thousands of undercover law enforcement mixed in the crowd ensuring we could run in safety. The thousands of tireless BAA volunteers who exhibited a level of dedication and customer service normally reserved for five-star resorts and restaurants. The charities and their tents, flags, banners and signs supporting runners fundraising for them.

For the runners on the other side of the barricades, it was even more amazing. As I always do for races, I wrote my name in large, bold letters on the front of my jersey so that I might get a few random cheers. On Monday, I heard my name thousands and thousands of times. I lost count. And I was in the last wave. The slowest one. Even though I ran a personal best by 29 minutes, my time was double that of the men’s winner. I finished in 22,545th place. Usually, most spectators are tired, sunburnt, buzzed and long gone by the time I go through. Not this year. The energy, spirit and goodwill from the people was cathartic. Not only getting over a tough, long winter but taking back our Marathon from the idiots who took lives last year. Millions living the Gospel of Big Papi, taking back “..our fucking city!”

A week later, I’m only beginning to remember that I got to run with the Hoyts on their final trip up Heartbreak Hill. Had former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis shake my hand after crossing the finish line. Right after Natalie Morales from NBC News gave me a high five. And saw Bob Kraft from the control booth clapping for the crowd crossing the finish line with me.

But all of that pales in comparison to what continues to build in Boston right now. There’s no limit to what a group of people unified by a common cause can do.

Even though Boston is nearly 400 years old, it feels like we’re just getting started.


Surviving Viga

Posted on April 4th, 2014

5 key tactics for surviving your trip to our stellar local italian eatery, Viga.

1. Know your order before you go in: You won’t have time for guesswork. It’s a high stress environment and you can’t be caught with your pants down. If you are a first-timer, check out the online menu before you go. Otherwise, order the first thing you see. It’s likely to be good, and you will cause chaos with any delay.

2. Stay right: The hot food line forms to the left as you walk in the door. This means pizza and pasta. If you are having a sandwich, you need to stay right as you enter. Once you make that first move, you either stay right for cold sandwiches, cutting through the checkout line to get to the counter, or split the middle for hot sandwiches.

3. Act like you are from New York: This is no place to air-out your sensitivities. You may need to throw some elbows. Above all, keep your head on a swivel, and attack the line like Bo Jackson.

4. No banter: Keep conversation to a minimum. It’s crowded, and the people behind the counter are moving fast, so there is no time for excessive questions. Make your order quickly, don’t talk to anyone else, and proceed to step 5.

5. Quick exit, meet outside: Once you have been handed your food, you make a bee-line to checkout, which looks a lot like the cold sandwich line. The line does not move in a linear fashion, so be prepared to jump ahead if beckoned by the cashier. Never try and wait for your friends inside. Pay for your food and then exit the building immediately. Your friends will be waiting for you outside.

6. Bonus: Take Xanax.

Marketing: The Song Remains The Same.

Posted on March 26th, 2014

The more marketing changes, the more it stays the same. Or, as the Talking Heads would say, “same as it ever was.”

Earlier this week, I gave a talk in an International Marketing class at Boston University’s Isenberg School of Management taught by former Reebok colleague + good friend, Pat Hambrick. Preparing for Monday morning’s class (MK 467 for those who sweat the details) by reading the syllabus (there’s a first time for everything)  I realized that I had taken the exact same class during my fun-filled stay at Villanova’s School Of Business over 25 years ago. Once I got over the bustle in my hedgerow about my age, it struck me that so much has changed in marketing over the past 25 years – yet the fundamentals of marketing haven’t changed at all.

The course description reads:

The principal objective of this course is to help you develop a critical appreciation of both the opportunities and challenges associated with the increasing globalization of markets.  During the semester, you will learn about the key environmental forces shaping consumer needs and preferences, the impact of foreign political and economic factors on U.S. companies, the influence of international competition, market segmentation and strategy decisions specific to international marketing.  You will:

  • Assess various foreign markets
  • Analyze the impact of cultural, social, political and economic factors on marketing strategies
  • Determine when to use different market entry and penetration strategies
  • Examine the different skills and systems required to implement marketing strategies across country borders

Since 1989 – a couple little things have irrevocably changed the marketing landscape thanks to Al Gore and his invention of the Internet:

Email. Even if you’re still Or you Yahoo! Websites. Ecommerce. Unless its of course. Social media. Whether you use it to organize an uprising or post a selfie or your entire Occupy movement Tebowing. Blogs. Tumblr. Mom blogs. Fashion blogs. Moms blogging about fashion on their Tumblr. YouTube. Cat videos. Cellphones. Smartphones. Laptops. Tablets. Chromebooks. MP3s. Napster. MP3 players. iPods. Pandora. Spotify. Kindle. Wal*Mart. Amazon. Infoseek. HotBot. Yahoo. SEO. AdWords. The Google. The world is flat. Everything is global. Brands can’t get away with anything. How’s that new Gap logo looking? The CMO has the shortest tenure of all executives.There’s no such thing as a one-company career. Unless your name is Zuckerberg, Gates or Brin. Google Analytics. Anyone can easily start a business now. Lean Startup. Squarespace. Amazon Web Services. Must See TV is now on DVRs + Netflix, only occasionally on NBC. Reviews aren’t in the paper, they’re on Amazon, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes. Speed. Apple. 

And hundreds if not thousands of others. An innovation-driven economy never stops changing, evolving + moving forward.

But while the tools and mediums have evolved and been disrupted, the fundamentals of great marketing are the same:

  1. Product is king (or queen, depending on your orientation). Without a great product, marketing doesn’t matter.
  2. Customer understanding, insight and conversation is central + critical to building a great product.
  3. Understanding how to connect with them is both an art + a science. All of the tools listed above have changed the ways companies are able to connect with potential customers.
  4. Your brand is everything you do. Including your product + your people. Even more important now when you can’t have any weak links or the Twitterverse will not be shy about pointing out your flaws to the world. No matter how small you might be.
  5. We’re all in sales.

So as we wind on down the road, be current on major shifts in mediums, tactics and on never forget the fundamentals.

And remember, there is no finish line.