Deflategate, the subject of hundreds of hot takes from the media, is reaching its final resolution as Tom Brady’s appeal hearing begins today. Despite all of the nonsensical ink and airwaves committed to this ‘scandal,’ Brady and his people have provided brands with lessons in messaging and crisis communications.
Lesson #1: Don’t Speak Out if Others Are Willing to Speak on Your Behalf
Aside from an awkward press conference before the Super Bowl, Brady has largely abstained from commenting on the issue publicly. The New England Patriots’ organization, however, has not. In a huge show of support for their star quarterback, Patriots Owner Robert Kraft came out swinging and issued a scathing rebuttal to the NFL’s Wells Report that found it “more likely than not” that Brady was involved in tampering with the AFC Championship game balls. While it must be difficult for Brady to take the abuse the national press have heaped so generously on him during this time, it is the right move.
Players like Adrian Peterson and Dez Bryant quickly turn public sentiment against themselves when they went off on unscripted rants on social media. The overwhelming majority of fans should be behind them – who would root for a tyrannical billionaire lording a hugely one-sided contract against an athlete who overcame huge odds to succeed at the highest levels of the NFL? – but their ill-timed meltdowns were quickly flipped into damaging stories about their “immaturity,” “selfishness” and for “not fulfilling their contract.” Peterson is now at training camp laboring under a contract he hates while Bryant will likely be doing the same. If both of these guys had kept quiet, they wouldn’t have ceded what little leverage they had. Brady staying mum while his owner waged a public war on his behalf avoided ostracizing himself from his own fans and avoided creating new enemies.
Lesson #2: Understand Your Part in the Story Arc
First things first: there isn’t a rational person alive that thinks that Tom Brady didn’t have anything to do with the tampered game balls. When Deflategate was first reported, the league had everyone on their side. The NFL was going to administer justice to a team that had cheated during the AFC Championship game. That is the story that should have been told. The NFL then made its biggest PR mistake: it handed down a punishment that didn’t match the crime which changed the entire narrative.
If the league had come out and smacked Brady with a one-game suspension and fined the Patriots a first round pick, they would have been loudly cheered. It would have been an aggressive sentence –the San Diego Chargers were penalized just $20,000 for the same infraction – but the context would have justified the punishment. Instead, the NFL doled out a ham-fisted sentence that was so far beyond reason that the punishment – rather than the crime – was now the focal point of the story. By punishing Brady well beyond precedent and giving him a tougher sentence than other players who had been arrested for violent crimes, the NFL undercut their position as a fair and impartial judge. Brady went from being the cheating villain to an unfairly persecuted martyr. Public sentiment continues to build for him and it’s all because of the league’s bungling.
Lesson #3: How to Move Past a Crisis
Make no mistake, Brady is going to be punished. The NFL cannot lose this case completely despite their best efforts. The Patriots quarterback, however, can move past Deflategate if he adheres to a few simple PR tactics:
- Accept the punishment. No matter how wronged he feels, he needs to accept his punishment and try not to stir the pot any further with inflammatory comments to the press. Reporters cannot write a news story in perpetuity about Deflategate if the central character refuses to participate.
- Manage the news cycle. No matter whether Brady talks to the press about the issue or not, there are several key dates where Deflategate will be a major media story. They are the opening of training camp, the opening day of the Patriots’ season and then – potentially – the first game he is back in the lineup. There will always be reporters looking to rile up Brady throughout the season but these weeks will be particularly loud. He should have a few standard responses and shouldn’t veer away from those to any reporter. Again, the media needs to be fed news, story angles and quotes to stay focused on a story. Reporters need to write interesting stories that get them clicks; if they’re not getting anything their rivals aren’t, the story goes away.
- Brady isn’t his only spokesperson. His team should work with the Patriots PR person to make sure that Brady’s teammates are also on the same page in terms of addressing Deflategate with the media. They will be barraged – particularly Brady’s backup Jimmy Garoppolo who will start in his place or media darling Rob Gronkowski – for their perspectives on the matter and could be the difference between the story fizzling out or gaining legs.
In the end, Deflategate will be an unfortunate blip on Brady’s career. His reputation has not been tarnished in any meaningful way so it’s critical that Brady and his team continue to play the long game and let this story blow over as soon as possible.