October 10, 2014

Dealing with Crisis: A Close Look at the NFL


Domestic violence is an important issue in our society, and one that sadly occurs in many homes across the nation. For the first time, this problem has been brought into the limelight by the NFL, and the organization failed to understand the gravity of the situation and act accordingly.
After ignoring facts and mishandling the Ray Rice case, several other NFL-related domestic violence incidences have emerged, including the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. Keeping in mind that football is the most followed sport in the United States, this NFL crisis has a huge impact on our society.
Without any clear notion of the NFL’s policies or stakeholders, Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, was unable to efficiently manage the organization’s reputation. There is a long list of dos and don’ts for organizations in a crisis, and the NFL hit right on every “don’t.” Failure to acknowledge and address everyone affected by the situation has been their biggest downfall.
Read on to find out how Goodell and the NFL failed and what PR steps they should have taken to regain control of the situation.

1. Pre-Plan: Identify stakeholders and their preferences.

Every organization is prone to problems, which is why a crisis plan should always be developed before such a situation arises. The first thing to consider when developing a crisis communication plan is your stakeholders. It is important for every organization to know and understand who its stakeholders are prior to a crisis because each of these individuals is a spokesperson for the company. Whether it’s NFL coaches, players or fans, every stakeholder will have something to say about the situation and can easily voice that opinion to their friends and family or publicly to their online networks.
Crest NFL CrisisThe NFL’s lack of strategy was clearly visible and it certainly did not realize the number and variety of its stakeholders. Employees, their families, fans, media, non-profit organizations, the government and partner corporations have an interest in the league in different ways. The NFL was unable to keep any of them happy.
Despite having prior information of the video where Ray Rice punched his then-fiance in an elevator and knocked her out, the only punishment he received at the time was a 2 game suspension. No effort was made by the NFL to acquire this video and take the appropriate action. When the video surfaced about 6 months later, it directly impacted several of the NFL’s stakeholders including: players whose similar actions had previously been hidden; fans who look up to these players; anti-domestic violence organizations such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Organization for Women and Loveisrespect; and corporate partners such as Procter and Gamble on behalf of Crest, who was working with the NFL on a Breast Cancer Awareness Month initiative, to name a few.
No information is private in today’s digital day and age. The league should have immediately acknowledged the video and taken appropriate actions after. Having a crisis communication plan would have aided the NFL in better understanding its relevant stakeholders and enabling Goodell to respond in a timely and appropriate manner. The NFL did not suspect organizations, like NOW, to take such a strong stance, and they underestimated partner corporations like Crest who, after these allegations, felt that doing business with the nation’s most followed sport would harm their brand.

2. Making a Statement: Understand the gravity of the situation; act immediately.

Goodell NFL CrisisAs mentioned above, the NFL had prior knowledge of Ray Rice’s violent video, yet no effort was made to understand the seriousness of the situation. Rice’s minor punishment put out the message that domestic violence is not that big of a deal. Instead of turning a blind eye to the evidence provided, the NFL should have taken the responsibility of appropriately punishing Rice as soon as allegations were made.
Even after the video surfaced, it took Goodell an entire week to come out with any kind of statement. A statement without all the facts is not the right way to go, however an organization must at least immediately acknowledge a crisis and address that it is taking steps to fix it. It is also important to develop key messages that reflect the organization’s values. These points should be leveraged across all communicative efforts, ensuring that no conflicting messages are sent.
In his statement, Goodell acknowledged his mistakes, apologized to the NFL and admitted “We do not have a clear and consistent policy that allows us to deal with all of the issues that are arising,” as CBS reported.
When making a statement, an organization in a crisis must be decisive and prepared to communicate its stance. The spokesperson must be prepped with a clear, concise statement that matches the organization’s values and addresses all important questions asked by relevant stakeholders.

3. Taking Charge: Actions speak louder than words.

National Domestic Violence HotlineWhile the NFL eventually got their key messages out to its players and employees, there were no answers offered to the other various stakeholders. Goodell’s statement seemed full of empty promises to many, and now the commissioner and his organization are under intense scrutiny. Congress, along with the entire nation, is waiting to see what happens next. Goodell, with a long history of being indecisive and inconsistent, is under the most pressure where everyone from NFL coaches and players to external organizations are calling for him to resign.
While Goodell may have lost his integrity among the public, the NFL must take action to fulfill the promises made at their initial press conference to maintain its reputation. The NFL value “We follow through our words with action. We are honest and direct,” must be proven immediately.
The league did meet this past Wednesday to discuss several issues around the NFL, including domestic violence. While Goodell said that domestic violence is not a football-only issue, he said his focus was “getting the house in order.” Many stakeholders are now waiting to see what exactly Goodell will do to achieve that goal.
No matter what the crisis, organizations are expected to resolve the issue in an appropriate manner. Just making a public statement and expecting things to be forgotten is not acceptable. A responsible organization will acknowledge its mistakes and move on to make decisions that benefit the company, community and other stakeholders.
Key Takeaways
Most organizations will face a crisis at some point in time, the only question is when. It is always beneficial to have a crisis plan mapped out that is familiar to the executives and employees of the organization so that when problems arise, there is a clear direction to follow. Making a coherent and well-rounded statement that addresses everyone’s concerns is easier when the organization knows who the relevant stakeholders are. In a time of crisis, the last thing needed is a failed press conference like Goodell’s that does not address all of the issues at hand. Finally, it is important to keep your word. Once an organization is in the limelight, every move is being watched by the public, especially those groups and individuals that were promised some type of resolution.
Kosha Shah

BIG fish PR is an unconventional agency that helps its clients redefine their industries.