How a crisis went from bad to worse

|| September 26, 2014

It’s hard to believe that a mighty sporting empire could botch crisis communications so badly.

But that’s what America’s NFL – a behemoth whose competition nets about $6 billion in TV revenue each year – has to confront.

The NFL placed its fingers in its ears while a domestic violence matter involving one of its players became a huge story. The NFL failed two basic premises of crisis communications:

  • find out whatever you can learn about an incident that affects your organisation. Otherwise, journalists will do it for you. 
  • the response to an incident is often more important than the incident

The NFL’s problems began earlier this year when Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice was charged with aggravated assault of his then fiancée Janay Palmer after a late-night incident at an Atlantic City casino.

Security video emerged showing Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of a lift at the casino. What happened before that was uncertain. And the NFL did not want to know.

In July, after Rice and Palmer had married, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games. Yes, two games.

The Baltimore Ravens told their 481,000 Twitter followers that: “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident”. Yes, really.

While the NFL wished it would all go away, journalists tracked down the full video of the incident and broadcast it to the world a few weeks ago.

The video is shocking. In the lift, Rice lands a left hook on the chin of his then fiancée and knocks her out. He then clumsily drags her by the legs from the lift while looking around to see who is watching.

The outrage flowed. Within hours, the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. But that didn’t save the NFL from a deserved hammering in mainstream and social media.

The video has sparked an unrelenting wave of commentary about the NFL’s leadership and Goodell’s standing.

The NFL looked many things – cowardly, incompetent and cold-hearted – and unwilling to confront any problem unless it became a threat to its very polished reputation.In other words – selfish and vain.

And it could yet be seen as a liar as stories emerge that the NFL received the full tape in April.

If the NFL had tried to gather the video footage back in February – the hotel says it was never asked – it could have been proactive and kicked Rice out of the league. The league could have shown that it took very seriously issues of domestic violence and that it upheld the same standards demanded by general society.

Instead, the NFL played the game that so often ends in tears – let’s hope the media doesn’t find out. Most times, they will, and the result is never pretty.