The NFL: A Runaway Train

Wreck imminent. (BigStock)
Wreck imminent. (BigStock)

I don’t personally know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Every opinion I have about him as a person and the leader of the NFL is gleaned from third-party sources. But I’ll say this – based on everything I’ve read and heard, he’s one of four things: unfathomably stubborn, exceedingly arrogant, amazingly delusional, deeply incompetent … or all of the above.

Now that the NFL season is in the rear view mirror, you don’t need to be a practitioner of hyperbole to call it one of the most exhausting and trying seasons in decades. Back in September, I wrote about how the months leading up to the 2014 season were a PR disaster for the league. Well, if you’re an NFL fan, this season was the campaign that really tested how much you were willing to tolerate to remain a devout follower of the sport. This season ran the gamut of depressing incidents: horrific domestic abuse cases (both against women and children); supposed cover-ups (or incompetence) by the league office in response to those cases; allegations of cheating against the eventual Super Bowl champions; and the disclosure of more grisly details around the toll the game has taken on ex-players. And at every turn, Goodell appeared to fumble every opportunity he had to address these incidents and mitigate their effects. It reached the point where the average person on the street probably thought they could do Goodell’s job better than him. I know I did.

And yet, the juggernaut that is the NFL rolled on, remaining as popular and lucrative as ever. Heck, this year’s Super Bowl was the most watched broadcast of any kind in U.S. TV history. It’s almost as if this past season was a science experiment to test how many public relations blunders a business could withstand before it buckled. The results for the NFL: they’re gonna need a lot more blunders.

Those blunders will come, as Goodell undoubtedly has some PR mishaps in front of him: while he’s delivering those ever-valuable profits to his bosses – the owners of the 32 franchises – he has a knack for making uninformed, knee-jerk decisions that cause him far more trouble further down the road and alienate the league’s fans and players. But here’s the thing: due to its popularity and ability to pretty much print money, the NFL is akin to a runaway train – it doesn’t need a driver, and it’s going to steamroll over any trouble it encounters on the tracks. It’s important to remember, though, that runaway trains don’t run forever. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said that the NFL “is 10 years away from an implosion.” Parents are increasingly forbidding their kids from playing football, thereby drying up the talent pool – President Obama is one of those parents. And the issue of the far-reaching effects concussions are having on ex-players is only going to grow as the years go by.

So what can the NFL do to avoid its potential demise, or at the very least, improve its image and keep the league alive and kicking? Let’s face it: the NFL faces a communications challenge so daunting that even the most skilled marketers on Earth couldn’t completely right the ship. But as with any organization faced with image issues, the league should take it one piece at a time. My advice to the NFL? Be more transparent, honest, and frankly, ethical in your day-to-day operations. Admit that you’ve had significant challenges managing player safety, appropriately addressing cases of domestic violence, and administering consistent disciplinary punishments. These issues deserve more than half-hearted lip service. At this point, Goodell’s reputation is so tainted that ANY attempt to show remorse and a desire to get things right will be a breath of fresh air.

At the end of the day, if you’re Roger Goodell right now, you’re probably sitting in your plush office in New York City and feeling a sense of invincibility: “If my league can survive this season, it can survive ANYTHING.” And for now, that’s true. It was the season from hell, but not really. But at some point, that runaway train will need to be corralled, and if Goodell has taught us anything, it’s that right now he’s not the guy equipped to apply the brakes.

A Case Study in Bad PR: The NFL

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.

XTC 7/1 – Kicking the Tires: The Importance of Truth-Telling in Storytelling

Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons
Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons

There’s an old English expression—if there’s a wasp in the room, I want to know where it is. And as somebody who was originally trained as a criminal prosecutor, I can attest to how important it is to know the location, size and severity of the skeletons in the closet. Normally, such issues come out during a standard crisis communications audit, and there are a number of sophisticated digital tools that can help companies anticipate a crisis and simulate what it would be like to be in one.

But all too often, we relegate crisis audits to large-scale corporate programs and forget to kick the tires on creative exercises like narrative development and thought leadership. We ask about what would sound compelling without probing deeply enough on what compelling evidence exists to back up our claims. One negative result is when an issue comes up out of left field that we’re not prepared for—a product doesn’t work the way it should, a company doesn’t behave the way it should, or an executive says something they shouldn’t have. And an even more disturbing result is when some fundamental problem emerges that undermines the rest of the communications program—some latent reputational issue that casts a shadow of doubt over everything else the company says and does.

That’s why sometimes the PR lead has to take off their promotional hat and put on their investigator’s cap. In the long run, PR success is best served by posing the most probing, difficult questions to get at the truth behind a company and its claims. Questions like:

  • What’s the one question you really hope you never get asked in an interview? And what’s the most honest answer to that question?
  • How is our customer base most likely to interpret our brand promise? And where are we most at risk for falling short of that promise?
  • Are we engaged in any activities that our customers don’t know about that would impact their decision to buy from us? And how would those actions most likely be perceived if they were to come to light?
  • What unspoken, implicit promises do our customers expect us to keep? And how are we doing with keeping those unspoken promises?
  • What’s the most likely crisis you can see emerging? And how prepared are we to deal with that crisis?

Unless we ask these questions, the communications campaigns we’re working on, no matter how creative or clever, can quickly be undone in a matter of seconds. Only by asking these questions can we as PR professionals equip our clients with the tools they need to respond to difficult issues with integrity and impact. And without the answers to these questions at hand, we run the risk that our communications efforts are reduced to spin, not persuasive argumentation of the truth.

XTC (Examining The Change) is a weekly column where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds explores the intersection of storytelling, leadership and technology.