Why the NFL’s Bag Job Falls Flat: Communication Lessons from the League’s Latest PR Implosion

Sep 11, 2015 Mike Parker

Clients often ask us the difference between a successful public relations campaign and one that is met with scrutiny or even worse, apathy. In a way it’s comparable to the differences between what makes a culinary masterpiece vs. a kitchen disaster, the ingredients and who is preparing the meal. At InkHouse we advise our clients on the importance of every campaign including the same set of core tenants: conveying a compelling story or vision, rooted in authority and possessing indisputable credibility. These are the basic starting points for a successful public relations program for any organization.

Knowing this makes the latest efforts by the $15 billion dollar PR disaster otherwise known as the NFL particularly dumbfounding. In case you aren’t an avid football fan like me or haven’t been following the latest developments in the NFL vs. Patriots saga, here is a quick primer. On Tuesday, September 8th, exactly five days after Tom Brady/Patriots won their court case against the NFL, the two largest sports media outlets in the country (ESPN and Sports Illustrated) both came out with exposes that were extremely negative towards the Patriots. To sum it up quickly, they called them cheaters.

So how is this negative PR for the NFL as an organization? Let’s review the story and the sequence of events and see how they compare with our keys to a successful PR campaign.

First, convey a compelling story or vision: in most media savvy environments drudging up reports and innuendo dating back nearly 15 years wouldn’t pass the boring test not alone the compelling one. Dated information that adds nothing to the current dialogue is best left for the historians, not the reporters and editors at our most influential media. In this instance, it actually comes off as petty and vindictive and paints the league and the commissioner in a very negative light. Is this really a compelling vision for the future?

Second, root in authority: throughout the so-called deflategate experience, it was debated as to whether authority and facts were on the side of the NFL. A federal judge that ultimately ruled against the NFL in a court of law was skeptical at best. The fact that both stories were filled with “unnamed sources” and “unconfirmed reports” doesn’t exactly add the authority you are looking for when trying to make a point through legitimate sources with the proper expertise.

Third, possess indisputable credibility: the third and most important pillar of a successful PR campaign may be the one that suffered the most throughout this entire ordeal. Once credibility is questioned, everything from that point forward is going to be met with skepticism. In the world of tech PR, it could be making product claims that you can’t back up. In the case of the NFL, it was making claims that were proven to be false in sworn testimony.

The ongoing feud between the NFL and the Patriots has been ratcheted up a notch or two thanks to the stories fed to the national sports media powerhouses. While it is concerning for all those that follow the sport, for those who make public relations a profession it is an unmitigated disaster.  The story that has played out over the past eight months is an exercise in what not to do to make your PR campaign a success. At least that is a positive we can take from all of this.

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