National Football League Loses More Points

 National Football League Loses More Points

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the National Football League.

Even if you know nothing about American football, you may have heard of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Their names will soon fade from the headlines, but a burgeoning image problem for the National Football League may not.

Martin recently walked away from the Miami Dolphins after he said he could no longer endure harassment by his teammates, led by Incognito. The imbroglio includes charges of racism and purported threats by Incognito to sexually assault Martin’s sister, and by Martin to annihilate Incognito’s entire family.

It sounds over the top, but not for the NFL. In the past two years, the league has seen one player charged with an execution-style homicide (Aaron Hernandez) and another murder his girlfriend then kill himself in front of his coach (Jovan Belcher). So far in 2013, more than 40 players have been arrested for various crimes. A book out last month, League of Denial, accuses the league of ignoring and even covering up evidence that players have suffered devastating brain damage as a result of their years on the field.

These issues arise as the NFL enjoys unprecedented popularity and financial success. Perhaps because of that, the brand – a collective of  32 teams – has been somewhat slow to tarnish. As the incidents mount, however, the league’s top brass needs to consider their next PR move.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the National Football League. Is the best defense, indeed, a good offense?

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Accentuate the positive. Like many organizations, the NFL doesn’t have complete control over its members but what the league does have is positive stories to tell: it has changed the rules of the game to try to reduce concussions, funds programs to examine head trauma and has “player engagement” programs that focus on mentorship and personal responsibility. These talking points should be in every team owner’s back pocket when speaking to the media. When an organization is the sum of its parts, PR is everyone’s job – not just the commissioner’s.

Football Team Avoids a Foul

 Football Team Avoids a Foul

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for the New England Patriots. (Pictured: Former Patriots team member Aaron Hernandez.)

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.