By Alyssa Bedrosian
Over the past few weeks, the NFL has learned firsthand one of the toughest lessons in crisis communications: Your response to the crisis, not the crisis itself, matters most. So far, the NFL appears to have failed the test.
Most organizations faced with a crisis are not judged by the crisis, but by their response to it, and the first hours and days after a crisis are critical in shaping public opinion and maintaining a company’s image. That is why RLF works with several clients to create tailored, process-driven crisis communications plans to help them communicate with key audiences more quickly and effectively should a crisis ever occur.
It’s hard to believe that the NFL and its public relations team stayed silent and reactive for so long. The NFL has a history of players engaging in questionable conduct and problematic behavior—from dog fighting to alleged murder and rape, severe criminal allegations against some of the league’s top players aren’t new. However, the back-to-back nature of recent events is something that the NFL’s leadership was obviously unprepared for.
So what did the NFL do wrong, and how can companies and organizations learn from the missteps of the world’s most lucrative professional sports league?
The NFL wasn’t proactive.
The NFL knew about some of the domestic violence incidents in the news much earlier in the year and had more than enough time to prepare should these issues resurface at the start of the season (which they inevitably did). The NFL should have met with league owners, player representatives and other officials to develop a plan with key messaging to proactively address the issue. Even if the league didn’t have time to prepare, it should have had a plan in place that outlined potential crisis scenarios and the specific communication process, messaging and goals for each scenario.
Don’t wait until a crisis hits to start fumbling around for a plan — be proactive and prepare in advance for any likely crisis situations.
The NFL remained silent.
The NFL needed to show a strong front and respond quickly to the flying accusations and multiple crisis situations. At the very minimum, the league should have issued a statement that said it was continuing to work with officials to assess the situation and respond with the necessary disciplinary action. Instead, the league remained silent for more than a week after its initial interview with CBS, as many fans and women’s rights advocates called for the resignation of key leaders. In the event of a crisis, it’s not always best to stay silent and let your critics control the message. Identify the right spokesperson, remain transparent and show that you are working to address the situation and make it right.
The NFL forgot a key audience.
In recent years, the NFL has made a concerted effort to appeal to women, who make up 45 percent of the league’s fan base and are vital to the league’s apparel sales. While women across the nation have had mixed reactions to the series of scandals, many women are boycotting the league until it can show that it is sincerely working to end violence toward women. Don’t let a crisis ruin the credibility you’ve built up with a target audience, and be proactive in communicating with an audience that is specifically impacted by the crisis situation.
Organizations face a variety of crises every moment of every day, and it’s likely that at some point, a crisis will hit. When it does, it’s essential to be prepared, be proactive and communicate openly and directly to the key audiences that are being impacted. The NFL has given us the perfect case study of what NOT to do in a crisis situation and offers lessons to all organizations on how to be better prepared.