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.
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.