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Manage the blitz – PR lessons learned from the NFL

Each year, the National Football League and its teams absorb a number of PR hits (no pun intended). In recent weeks, the New England Patriots and my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have dealt with PR issues, with mixed results.  Consider how these situations were handled (or mishandled) and the lessons that could translate to your organization:

  • ESPN published an expose on rumors of a rift and power struggle among the New England Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady. Although some of us may relish the impact of such a schism, the Patriots swiftly squelched speculation when they issued a statement within hours calling the accusations “fallacies.” Kraft, Belichick and Brady, the statement said, “stand united.” The team was able to focus on the task at hand – football. You may have noticed that the Patriots won their playoff game and will return to the AFC Championship this weekend.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger initiated talk of his retirement at the end of last season. He reignited speculation over the end of his career after a five-interception loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this season. After that game, he said, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.” Naturally, after the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, reporters seized the opportunity to ask Big Ben if he would retire. He did the smart thing and immediately and definitively said he would be back, eliminating months of speculation and distraction for the team.
  • Sticking with the Steelers, running back Le’Veon Bell held out from the team’s training camp because of a contract dispute. Since then, he has intermittently been vocal about his worth. Three days before the Steelers were to face the Jaguars in the playoffs, a reporter from ESPN asked Bell about his contract negotiations. Instead of deflecting the question until after the season, Bell said he would consider retiring or sitting out if he was franchise tagged again, causing a huge distraction for the team the week before its playoff game. You may have noticed that the Steelers lost to the Jaguars, dashing their Super Bowl hopes and crushing their incredibly loyal fan base.

There are common yet powerful communications lessons in these instances. First, when dealing with rumors, act quickly and definitely while addressing them. Speculation can eat away at a company or organization, hurting employee morale and sowing confusion. Soon a lack of trust can develop among other key stakeholders, including investors and customers.

Moreover, social media causes rumors to spread like wildfire. In all of the cases above, social media magnified the issues at hand. Strategic communicators should seek to eliminate speculation.

Second, be careful who you allow to speak on behalf of your organization. NFL teams struggle with this, as many players regularly conduct interviews that reflect on themselves and their teams. In the corporate world, this would violate best practices and company media policy.

Consider the Le’Veon Bell situation. If he had downplayed the reporter’s loaded question and simply said something like, “I am not thinking about next year or anything beyond this Sunday. My focus is 100 percent on the Jaguars this week,” the Steelers would have had fewer distractions. Perhaps the team would have functioned better as a whole.

If you would like to talk further about how to deal with the media in sticky situations and how to prepare and train your spokespersons (or just to commiserate about the Steelers being knocked out of the playoffs), feel free to call me at 216-241-3027 or drop me an email

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