A Case Study in Bad PR: The NFL

Ron Almog/Wikimedia Commons
Ron Almog/Wikimedia Commons
Ron Almog/Wikimedia Commons

We believe in the power of PR. Whether it’s to communicate a brand’s vision, increase engagement with customers or get the word out about a new product, PR can have all sorts of positive effects on a business. And while fundamental changes in the media landscape and skyrocketing consumer expectations are increasing corporate accountability and transparency – and in the process putting PR front and center – one of the largest and most popular organizations in the United States appears to be ignoring every possible best practice.

Are you ready for some football?

We are of course talking about the National Football League (NFL). From extreme player controversy to inadequate safety practices (and that’s being polite), the NFL has had more than its share of PR mishaps lately. For example, earlier this year Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice was caught on camera dragging his fiancée out of a Las Vegas elevator after knocking her unconscious. Both the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL took some highly questionable steps following the incident, including the Ravens holding a press conference with both Rice and his fiancée-turned-wife, during which Rice delivered an unbelievably insensitive line about how he was handling the situation: “Sometimes in life, you will get knocked down.” Keep in mind, he was talking about himself, but the irony of his victimized wife sitting next to him during this was overwhelming. Of course, it’s unlikely that the Ravens gave that to Rice as a “key soundbite,” but what kind of reasoning led them to believe that a press conference of that nature was a good idea?

Enter the NFL, which had the opportunity to take a strong stance against domestic violence by throwing the book at Rice and suspending him for an extended period of time – say, the entire season, which is the punishment the NFL just gave another player for smoking marijuana. The NFL’s decision? A puny two-game suspension. The public outcry to the NFL’s decision was justifiably swift and far-reaching, and the NFL soon realized it had committed a critical fumble and quickly instituted a new stringent domestic violence policy. But the fact that the NFL wasn’t able to correctly address something that was so glaringly wrong in the first place was massively shortsighted and, frankly, appalling.

And it’s not just us who are highlighting the many issues the NFL is dealing (poorly) with: take a look at this Washington Post article documenting the problems the organization has faced over the past few years.

However, while the NFL has been roundly criticized for the Ray Rice debacle, as well as its reluctance to advance concussion research to protect former, current and future players, business is booming. In fact, revenues exceeded $10 billion in 2013 and are projected to reach $25 billion by 2025. And as I write this blog post highlighting the failures the NFL has had in brand reputation, I’m giddy for this Sunday’s opening weekend of games. So clearly, the NFL not only banks, but also capitalizes on millions of fans that act just like me.

The Washington Post article argued, “the NFL doesn’t have a PR problem … it has a reality problem.” We think that should be flipped – the NFL does have a PR problem because it’s so negligent (or flippant) towards it. Although it continues to drag its reputation through the mud, the reality is that the NFL’s future is blindingly bright despite these stumbles. But as PR practitioners, we can tell you from experience that ignoring PR best practices as blatantly as the NFL does almost always results in bad business. Almost always.

Look, I love this sport. I just hate its PR practices.