In an era marked by so many public relations disasters, it’s refreshing to be able to point out when a brand successfully averts a PR crisis. Such is the case with the National Football League (NFL). The NFL announced on Friday that the New Orleans Saints maintained a “bounty” system to financially reward its defensive players for injuring opponents. This is troubling news to say the least, even for a sport as violent as football.
Under the bounty system, Saints players were paid if they contributed to injuries that removed an opposing player from the game. Players received $1,000 for cart-offs (player removed from the field on a cart) and $1,500 for “knockouts” (player could not complete the game). Payouts doubled and tripled in the playoffs.
It’s not completely surprising to learn that NFL players were intent on hurting other players. You get that sense from watching certain players and their style of play. What is surprising is that it was the NFL that broke the news about the bounty program. To risk understating it, the league isn’t known for its PR savvy. In fact, it has a long history of PR missteps in my opinion.
Proactive PR has its Benefits
Kudos to the NFL for taking decisive action and announcing the problem before anyone else “broke” the story. Their preemptive strategy was smart. They seized control of the flow of information before anyone else could. No doubt, news of the bounty program would have come out eventually. If it was announced by someone else, the league would have been in a reactive PR mode, which is always the least desirable position.
By bravely announcing the news, the NFL won a huge public perception battle. The NFL has consistently preached player safety as one of its highest priorities. Its actions in acknowledging the bounty program and the intention to be decisive in addressing it supports the player safety position. Had news of the program been broken by someone else it clearly would have appeared that the NFL either didn’t know about the program or knew about it but was not addressing it. Those two options don’t support the perception of a sports league that cares about the safety of its players. Being proactive from a PR perspective protected the NFL’s image from taking a huge hit.
The NFL is off to a good start in managing this scandal, but an important component remains. From a PR perspective, if they hope to finish strong they must quickly come to decisions about who is responsible and how those people will be punished. Allowing this to linger only opens the door for rampant media speculation and the story to spin out of control. Decisions must be arrived at quickly and communicated as proactively as the league did when it announced the news of the bounty program. The sooner this chapter is closed for the NFL the fewer the stories and social media chatter that will take place surrounding it.
Any way you look at it, this isn’t an image-enhancing story for professional football. The NFL, however, has done an admirable job thus far in averting what could have developed into a major crisis. Of course, from a PR standpoint, the losers in this situation are the New Orleans Saints and the players and coaches involved. Had the team taken the approach the NFL took in addressing the situation, things may have been different. Of course, now we’ll never know.
What do you think?