Matt co-founded TrendKite in 2012 and oversees all aspects of the organization’s product strategy and development.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the NFL. It seems like, “Are You Ready for Some Football,” should be the jingle for CNN, not CBS. As if shocking video of Ray Rice punching his then fiancé out cold in an elevator, weren’t enough, that news was closely followed by the arrest of Adrien Peterson for child abuse, again with images. These revelations come on top of already sharp criticism of the NFL’s handling of domestic violence charges against Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of San Francisco. Not to mention growing concern over player harm caused by concussions and increasing public pressure to do something about the name of the Washington DC football club. Crisis monitoring must have become a full time job for the NFL PR team.
Regardless of how you feel about football, or commissioner Roger Goodell’s response to the alarming domestic violence situation, there is something to be learned from how things have been handled so far from a purely PR prospective. We don’t know, of course, exactly how the NFL conducts crisis monitoring and media management, but we can learn something from the results we’ve seen so far.
How Did They Not See This Coming?
Looking at the Ray Rice situation in particular, it is hard to give the NFL credit for effective crisis management from the beginning. Ray Rice and his then fiancé (now wife) were both arrested for assault on February 15 in an Atlantic City casino. Just days later, video surfaced showing Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé from the elevator. Police indicated that there was a second video from inside the elevator that showed Rice throwing the knockout blow. There is disagreement about whether the NFL saw the second, interior elevator video, but they knew (or should have guessed, it’s a casino elevator, after all) that the second video existed. Given that the first one leaked, the league should have assumed the worst. That the video footage would be damaging and that it would leak.
If they had made that assumption, it’s less likely that Ravens Owner, Steve Biscotti would have said, "He's just been lauded as the nicest, hardest working, greatest guy on the team and in the community.” Or that following the press conference announcing Rice’s 2 game suspension, the Ravens would have tweeted, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
From Bad to Worse
Many members of the public and women’s groups, in particular, were not impressed with Rice’s two game suspension. Public pressure mounted so strongly and quickly that commissioner Goodell held a press conference to admit the punishment was light and commit to doing better in the future. The failure to assume the worst, meant that Mr. Goodell would be doing more press conferences in the future. The near future.
One might argue that NFL suspensions should not be based on public pressure and perhaps that’s the case, but if you allow for a tie between this kind of decision and PR crisis monitoring and management, it was certainly a mistake. We may never know if the NFL had seen the second video at the time the punishment was announced, but by the August 28th press conference, they surely knew (or should have guessed) that it existed. The opportunity was missed to revise the penalty at that time, before the inevitable leaking of the video. (Pro tip, if there is video of anything, assume that TMZ will get their hands on it.)
The World Presses Play
On September 8th, TMZ posted the brutal video of the attack on the future Mrs. Rice. It’s very unusual for the public to see domestic violence played out so viciously. The outcry was fast and loud. The Baltimore Ravens acted first by cutting Rice from the team. The NFL followed by suspending the player indefinitely. But it was too late. Calls for Mr. Goodell’s resignation continue, even after another apology press conference on Friday. The situation has cast a pall over the entire sport with many questioning the integrity of the institution and expressing concerns over massive corruption.
This series of events likely won’t be enough to doom America’s favorite sport, but it may very well end up costing the commissioner his job. He didn’t punch Mrs. Rice, but many think his leniency was just as bad. If he had assumed from the beginning that a) there was a video, b) the video was awful and c) the video would leak, he and the PR team might have been in a better position to control the situation.
The take away is that when your PR crisis monitoring reveals a potential problem, assume there is evidence, assume the evidence is damming, assume it will leak and act accordingly. Richard Nixon should have made that clear to everyone.