Dittus: Public affairs lessons from the NFL's crisis

Amid multiple wars, Ebola, midterm elections, and a new iPhone, the NFL was the biggest end-of-summer story in mainstream news. That tells you all you need to know.

Gloria Dittus, Story Partners

It doesn’t take a public affairs professional – or even a football fan – to know that the National Football League’s reputation is at an all-time low following the Ray Rice scandal.

The fact that amid multiple wars, an Ebola health crisis, looming elections, and a new iPhone, the NFL was the biggest end-of-summer story in mainstream news tells you all you need to know.

I had this in mind as I tuned in to NBC’s Today recently and watched a segment about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton interacting with a young fan who suffers from cerebral palsy. It was a touching piece – the same emotional story about fans and players that NBC and the NFL have been promoting each week as part of the Together We Make Football initiative.

What gave me pause wasn’t the fact that it aired, or that it was well-done. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find another enterprise with advertising and marketing partnerships as expansive as the NFL’s. Furthermore, it’s no surprise that the NFL and its partners have joined hands and invested to keep its ratings up.

Instead, what caught my attention and got me thinking was this revelation: while the NFL’s marketing communications is strong, its strategic comms is not. In my years of work on public affairs – some for clients as big as, or bigger than, the NFL – I’ve learned that these are far from one and the same.

The NFL can’t just market its way out of this problem. Recognizing that fact can be the difference between viewers seeing something like the Today segment and getting warm feelings about the NFL, versus what it was most likely seen as in the wake of its assorted domestic violence issues: a last-ditch, too-little-too-late PR effort to win back favor from a disapproving public.

The first strategic communications takeaway, then, is recognizing your constituency. With women making up the fastest-growing segment of its fan base, the league needs to do more than provide lip service to women. Many women drive their young sons to and from football practice and rally their families to support these young athletes as they work their way to an NFL career. Couple that with the spending power of these female fans, and the NFL has a serious problem on its hands — one that negatively affects its image and bottom line.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell may have thought he only needed to communicate to, and protect, team owners. But to truly defend the team’s owners, the NFL and the commissioner need to lead on this issue. Owners have a license to operate the teams, but the NFL has a responsibility to lead, and they have failed to seize that opportunity.

The second takeaway is the importance of getting the right people in the room when making decisions from the get-go. The NFL’s lack of a strategic communications plan has been clear, not just in the immediate aftermath of the latest Ray Rice revelations, but for months. This insulated approach kept out diverse perspectives that could have steered the ship through stormy waters, without the bad decisions and poor crisis management along the way.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has announced a VP of social responsibility and three outside consultants — all women — who will guide the league on domestic-violence and sexual-assault policies. But where was this response in February, when the Rice scandal broke? And, this being far from the NFL’s first incident of off-field violence, where was this institutional structure years ago? Without getting the right people in the room early, even the rollout generated skepticism from most that it was just window dressing and not a real commitment to generating real solutions.

In public affairs, the right people at the table may be the ones you least expect. In other industries, it might mean odd bedfellows like environmentalists and energy producers working together on CSR efforts. In the male-dominated culture of the NFL, smart, capable women could have set the tone with effective social policies long before it was seen as a PR stunt. Transparency could have avoided the appearance of malfeasance as new, damaging facts came to light.

The same day the Together We Make Football segment aired on NBC, Goodell held an afternoon press conference about the Ray Rice affair, admitting mistakes and vowing to do better. The ubiquitous NFL logo decorated the backdrop as Goodell stood alone — literally and figuratively — at the table.

Perhaps next time the league’s reputation is on the line, marketing communications will take a back seat to strategic communications, and he’ll have a smart team of diverse voices standing beside him as a result.

Gloria Story Dittus is chairman of Story Partners.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Explore further