When an employee is arrested for a crime, should the company stand by the person? That was the question facing US football team The New England Patriots recently when police began investigating one of their star players, Aaron Hernandez, in the death of an acquaintance.
At first, team management was quiet on the matter. As details began to emerge, however, they moved into damage-control mode. Shortly after Hernandez’s arrest, the Patriots announced they would release him. A few hours later, Hernandez was charged with first-degree murder.
From a PR perspective, the Patriots did three things right: They fired Hernandez (at significant financial expense) before he’d been charged; their statement expressed both condolences to the victim’s family and their horror that a Patriots player might be involved; and they offered to exchange, for free, team jerseys inscribed with Hernandez’s name, many of which are owned by the team’s younger fans.
Arrests of professional football players are on the rise so the Patriot’s decision was an important one. In 2013, at least 39 players have been charged with serious crimes. The Patriots are one of the most well-managed and competitive teams in the league. By cutting ties to Hernandez, they sent a powerful message: criminal activity won’t be tolerated, even by lucrative star players.
THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for the Patriots, whose swift decision saved face.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: “Innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply when it comes to the brand. The decision to walk away from beleaguered employees sounds heartless, but an employee’s misconduct – real, perceived, or as yet confirmed – can cast dark shadows on an organization. These unusual situations must be decided on a case-by-base basis; there may be times when evidence is less than compelling, or a suspension makes better PR and legal sense. As a general rule, though, the sooner a company parts ways with the accused, the better.