Scott Sobel, MA Media Psychology, kglobal Agency
There is a time-worn saying in football and other sports, “Do your talking on the field.” In other words, bragging and promises are meaningless unless you out preform your opponent in a game. A variation of that saying also applies to effective crisis management; if you don’t back-up your corporate promises with actions a big part of your audience will stop believing you and go somewhere else to buy products or services.
The NFL can’t expect a quick silver bullet fix after Kansas City Chief’s running back Kareem Hunt kicked and shoved a female acquaintance. The incident was caught on a Cleveland hotel surveillance video taken in July. The Chief’s didn’t fire Hunt until the video showed-up on TMZ. The team and league are asking for public forgiveness because they said they couldn’t get a copy of the video and were in the middle of conducting their own investigation – I repeat, the incident happened in mid-summer and the tabloid news web site TMZ was indeed able to get and show the video days ago, leading to Hunt’s immediate firing.
Hunt is also asking for forgiveness but it’s another example of needing to back-up his apology with action on the field of public opinion. The star running back allegedly had another public fight in June and the NFL didn’t investigate that one quickly either and no charges were brought, in part, because there apparently wasn’t a smoking gun video.
The NFL is accused of historically not responding quickly to crisis, unless it is forced to respond faster and with a sense of social responsibility. As in good PR crisis management, response must fit the crisis and there must be a plan to prevent another similar crisis. The NFL hasn’t necessarily followed those dictates. Remember, a few famous examples of player violence, misdeeds and reputation disasters: 2007, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for participating in a dog fighting ring. He eventually apologized and preached against dog fighting (he played again in the NFL after serving prison time). 2014, then star NFL running back Ray Rice was recorded on hotel video knocking out his fiancée in an elevator, he never played another down in the NFL – Rice has reportedly volunteered to counsel Kareem Hunt. Just a few days ago, 49’ers linebacker Rueben Foster was fired by his team after alleged domestic abuse violations only to be immediately hired by the Washington Redskins and may play again next season.
And then there are the cases of how long it took the NFL to respond to the player concussion scandal and the controversy about players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
The NFL’s reaction time brings up another crisis-applicable and sports-related saying, “Speed kills.” In other words, the faster a player is, the more likely that player will be a successful athlete and beat a slower opponent. The lesson to be learned here is that the faster the NFL, or any business, reacts appropriately to crises, the faster the crises evaporate, get out of the news cycle and stop affecting reputation. Now it is up for discussion whether poor reputation immediately impacts NFL ticket sales or broadcast ratings, but, of course, a poor reputation is never, ever good.
One thing is sure though, youth football attendance has declined and is it possible that is at least partially a result of parent’s concerns about the reputation of football crises and the state of player role models at the NFL level? And what happens to the NFL if it continues to have reputational problems … what would happen to any business with consistent problems with its reputation?
To paraphrase another sports cliché with a crisis PR twist, the NFL needs to keep its eye on the reputation ball and act quickly and decisively, back-up apologies with action and instate violence prevention programs and not just talk a good game.
About the Author: Scott Sobel is Senior Vice President, Crisis and Litigation Communications, at kglobal, a Washington, DC-based full-service communications firm that influences public policy, increases market share + builds awareness for our commercial and federal clients. He counsels some of the world’s best-known corporations and is also a former in-house corporate public relations practitioner; major market and TV network police and investigative journalist and a media psychologist. https://kglobal.com/who-we-are/scott-sobel; https://www.kglobal.com/