What The NFL Did Wrong and What It Should Do Now


So often in crisis management we observe what individuals and brands do wrong and that receives most of the coverage.David Johnson, CEO & Founder, Strategic Vision PR Group

Today’s consumers expect a brand to not only offer the best in quality but also to share their values. The consumer buys into the perceived values of a brand as much as they do the products or services of the brand. That is why the NFL made a major mistake in its response to President Trump over the issue of players kneeling during the national anthem.

The latest public relations war in the Trump presidency all started when President Trump was at a campaign rally in Alabama for Luther Strange, and Trump, as he is apt to do, went off script and began talking about NFL players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem and said NFL owners should fire those players. The NFL responded criticizing Trump and talking about the first amendment rights of the players. Sunday’s NFL games saw an unprecedented protest with players and owners linking arms during the playing of the national anthem, numerous players kneeling during the anthem, and some teams refusing to come out of the locker room until the national anthem finished playing.

All of this was supposed to demonstrate that the NFL is united against any infringement of the rights of its players. The NFL is running a commercial called unity to symbolize the unity in the face of Trump’s criticism.

Remember the NFL brand was already damaged with domestic violence scandals, ‘deflategate”, player concussions, and the initial kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 – 2017 season. This was reflected in declining viewership and attendance. This latest controversy just escalates the damage to the NFL brand further and causes many fans to question if the brand stands for their values.

What did the NFL do wrong?

1. Respond to President Trump at all. Yes, in this 24/7 news cycle and social media driven world, brands feel a constant pressure to respond. Yet responding to President Trump when he goes off script or on a Twitter rant, actually seems to reinvigorate him and further escalate a controversy. It actually as we have seen time and again plays into his hands. And unlike other politicians, President Trump has shown again and again that he doesn’t care what these battles might do to his poll numbers, while the brands under attack must worry about what it will do to their brand image. The best response to President Trump is to ignore him or poke fun at him.

2. Not have a simple answer on what they are protesting about. To be effective and capture public sympathy, the reasons for the protests and actions must be simple. Nobody knows what the players and owners were protesting about with their actions. Was it against racism? Was it to show support for Colin Kaepernick who began the whole kneeling during the anthem in 2016? Was it a protest against Donald Trump? If it was for unity, then unity against what? The NFL had no clear message that fans could understand about their actions.

3. Forgetting the visual. People are visual. The visual of players kneeling during the anthem, not leaving the locker room until after the anthem was played, or just joining arms during the playing was a powerful visual but not in the way the NFL hoped. With no easy explanation for the protests, fans were left with a visual that to many seemed to imply disrespect for the American flag and national anthem.

4. Forgetting their consumer. The millions who watch or attend football games are the NFL’s consumers. They have sent powerful messages through declining viewership on what they think about kneeling during the national anthem. In their actions, the NFL players and owners seemed to disregard their consumers totally. More than that, they seemed to go against the brand story that fans have bought into in regarding the NFL. The NFL seemed to forget the oldest adage – the customer is always right.

So, what should the NFL do now?

1. Have an explanation on what all of this is about and how the actions we are seeing are consistent with the values that fans believe the NFL stands for and has stood for over the years.

2. Quit engaging President Trump and rather engage the fans.

3. Highlight the values the NFL stands for, and the works the NFL and players have done in communities.

Donald Trump’s war with the NFL is a striking lesson of what happens if a brand appears to abandon its values. It is also a lesson that a whole new way of crisis management is needed if your brand is in the cross hairs with Donald Trump.

About the Author: David Johnson is the CEO and founder of Strategic Vision PR Group. With over 20 years of experience, he is a PR industry leader who specializes in media relations, crisis, communications, branding, and reputation management. He drives client strategy and has been integral in leading the firm forward since its founding in 2001 during the aftermath of 9/11. He has been described as a PR guru extraordinaire and the go to person for crisis communications by the news media.

1 Comment

  1. Kimberly on at 10:33 AM

    This should have been apart of the explanation:

    From my lawyer friend Moni Jay Because I am a lawyer:
    36 U.S.C 176, et seq. reads:
    Respect for flag
    No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.
    (a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
    (c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
    (d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
    (f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
    (g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
    (h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
    (i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
    (j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
    (k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

    Note, kneeling ain’t in here.

    The 3rd paragraph of the National Anthem speaks about killing the slaves, black peoples ancestors. This is song to highlight the injustices that Black people in America deal with especially from police brutality. Address police brutality.

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