'A situation of no good decisions': Joe Lockhart on the NFL's Trump crisis

How the "ultimate purple institution" was thrown into turmoil last season, and lessons learned from its response.

L-R: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, DMI's Beth Engelmann, Richard Edelman
L-R: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, DMI's Beth Engelmann, Richard Edelman

CHICAGO: Until 2016, there was virtually no political controversy in the National Football League. That all changed when Colin Kaepernick began getting down on one knee during the pre-game rendition of the national anthem in protest of police brutality against black Americans.

Last season, President Donald Trump used the NFL to "attack" part of American culture, and the non-political stance of the league was "thrown into turmoil," said Joe Lockhart, former EVP of communications for the NFL.

"The NFL was the ultimate purple institution; just as many people on the far left liked football as people on the far right. Just as many of them have a voice that can be exercised," said Lockhart, now Edelman’s vice chairman of public affairs, on a panel at the PRWeek Conference in Chicago on Thursday.

Last season, Trump lambasted Kaepernick for what he called disrespectful behavior to the country and said the NFL should have suspended the former San Francisco 49er. Left off a roster since the end of the 2016 schedule, Kaepernick is suing the NFL. His lawsuit alleges the organization and its 32 team owners colluded to keep him unemployed "based on partisan political provocation by the executive branch of our government."

"We were faced with a situation of no good decisions," said Lockhart, about the NFL. "We didn’t want to do something perceived as disrespecting the flag, troops, or law enforcement, but we also didn’t want to do something that was perceived as muting people’s ability to exercise their First Amendment rights."

Lockhart said the NFL had to pick the least-worst choice, and that was to side with its players.

"That was controversial among the owners, who had a conservative outlook on these issues," he said. "We came to the conclusion that we couldn’t pick a side."

The league had to suffer through a year and a half of bad press.

"Sometimes you have to do what from the outside looks like you don’t know what you’re doing," Lockhart said.

He added that one of the most important crisis comms lessons from the situation is to clearly identify the people within a company working on a crisis and tell the rest of organization to stay away from them. No more than six to eight people were working on the anthem issue in the NFL’s legal office.

"If it looks like a six-year-old’s soccer game where everyone is running for the ball, when you get through the crisis, you will have abandoned the core things you are trying to do," Lockhart said.

During the anthem crisis, the NFL raised its digital spend and marketing to focus on health and safety initiatives it was concurrently running.

"We knew that as cataclysmic as it felt in the moment about the anthem, all that heat would die out," said Lockhart. "But the concussion issue is one we will work on for now until they stop playing football or climate change decides there’s no more sports. It is an existential issue. Those efforts never stopped."

Brands taking a stand
Belief-driven buying is on the upswing, said another panelist, Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman.

"Our thesis on this is that it is brand democracy, meaning that I feel I can control my brand choices more than I can control what’s happening in the world of politics," he said. "So I am substituting my vote for what I do at retail. This is across age groups and income groups."

He added that because so many people have "trust issues" with the government, brands are expected to stand in for things that are not happening from elected officials.

"So what is it we can do as communicators to push brands into education, LGBT, or retraining of workers?" said Edelman. "Government used to do it. Now it is on brands: people expect brands to answer the call."

Because of this, it’s not an option for brands to opt out of taking a stand, he said.

"Otherwise you are facing generic competition or the startup brands will do it for you, especially if you’re a big company," Edelman said. "You have to act small and brave, as opposed to act conservative."

One of the most-high-profile brands to take a stand in recent months was Nike, which launched a campaign in September celebrating the 30th anniversary of its iconic Just Do It tagline, including Kaepernick in the push.

"Nike was actually smart to do this, not risky," said Edelman. "They were ahead of their time in considering this new ethos of brands having to take a stand."

Lockhart noted that the NFL’s situation proves there is no one-size-fits-all solution to brands taking a stand.

"[The NFL’s] situation was in the opposite place of where Nike was, where they could do something bold that might alienate 20% of customers but so energized their core constituencies that it was worth it," said Lockhart.

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