6 leadership lessons from the NFL crisis

The NFL’s mistakes in handling the Ray Rice crisis can be educational for leaders of all stripes.

The NFL’s Ray Rice crisis has transcended sports. Its core problems occur in organizations of varying sizes and missions all the time. There are high-profile, highly productive employees in many organizations who, unfortunately, also pose significant risks to their employer’s reputation and trustworthiness. The NFL had many opportunities to better handle its full-blown publicity crisis, but as it is, the incident may cost Roger Goodell his $44 million-a-year job as commissioner.

Here are a few lessons for leaders of any organization.

1. PR is strategic, not a crutch for bad decisions. Despite Hollywood’s best plot lines, PR can’t spin a story hard enough to erase poor decisions, especially when condemning evidence is already in the public domain.

Ineffective leaders use PR to bail an organization out of bad decisions. Effective leaders give their PR professionals a seat at the table, encourage them to explain the public ramifications of decisions, and use those insights to avoid crises. Then PR can focus on restoring trust in the organization by communicating its positive decisions and actions.

2. Find out all the facts. Goodell said the NFL didn’t see video of Rice hitting his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, until TMZ made it public Sept. 8. The implication was that the NFL didn’t know how severe the abuse was. But the Associated Press reported that the NFL acknowledged receipt of a video that showed Rice throwing the punch months before that. Rice and others who met with Goodell have stated that Rice told the commissioner he hit his fiancée. The Baltimore Ravens’ owner, Steve Bisciotti, said he wasn’t interested in knowing what the in-elevator video showed. Plausible deniability is not an effective tactic in public relations. Eventually, everything comes out in the communications wash.

The first step in crisis management, and sometimes the most difficult, is to gather all the facts. Details you don’t know can come back to bite you, because somebody knows them, or will. Details you don’t want to know, or deny knowing, can sink you. Goodell is very popular with NFL owners, but someone will be thrown under the bus, likely either Goodell or Bisciotti.

3. Be honest with stakeholders. The NFL’s initial two-game suspension of Rice was roundly and loudly criticized, because it was wrong. Goodell later apologized and fell on his sword, saying he got it wrong the first time. However, it appears now that Goodell still wasn’t forthcoming. Instead of a mea culpa about lenient discipline, the NFL should have apologized for not acting on the full breadth of information they had on hand.

Another sign the NFL wasn’t taking the matter seriously was their seemingly earnest announcement of an “independent investigation.” It didn’t take long for reporters to point out that the independent investigator has NFL ties and would answer to NFL owners. That’s like asking an opposing offense create your defensive schemes.

4. Think long-term. Rice hit Palmer in February. The incident blew up in September. In the heat of the moment, it’s tempting to think you’re in the clear if the news doesn’t break in a day or two. No news isn’t always good news. Sometimes silence means a news outlet is building background and stockpiling evidence.

5. Get ahead of bad news Assume bad news will break. When it does, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. The longer you wait for bad news to break the less control you have of the message. Quickly take the necessary steps to gather the facts and give reporters and the public regular progress reports. People are more forgiving if they know some action is being taken, but in a communication vacuum, speculation rules the day.

6. Rely on values The NFL might be selling tickets, jerseys and TV contracts, but it also has a perceived problem with values—think concussions, player violence, bullying, and substance abuse. Controversy within an organization creates mistrust, chaos and inefficiencies even before controversies come to light. Bad decisions based on poor judgment or weak values can doom an organization, and sometimes, its stakeholders (see Enron). What’s worse, allowing inappropriate behavior to continue becomes not only an organization’s problem, but society’s as well.

Controlling issues and avoiding crises is often a simple matter of relying on core values and doing what’s right. PR professionals remind leaders what happens in the court of public opinion when values are breached, and when the organization acts on values, PR professionals can help restore and improve an organization’s status.

Clinton Colmenares is president of Apiary Communications Consulting. He has been helping multi-billion dollar organizations navigate crises and media strategy since 2000. Find out more at www.apiarycommunications.com

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