Wednesday, October 1

Is The NFL The World's Most Dangerous Brand?

While most of the conversation has revolved around Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after knocking his fiancee (now wife) unconscious in a casino, some people have taken to actively banning the $9.5 billion industry in general. Their decision includes a litany of reasons, ranging from the uproar over the team name Washington Redskins to the high risk of concussions and brain trauma.

There is more, and the list seems to grow longer by the day. Football, which Malcolm Gladwell once likened to the popularization of dog fighting in the 19th century, is clearly in the crosshairs with the NFL seen by some as public enemy number one. Everything done is being questioned. And more than some wonder if it can survive despite record-setting viewership.

How many black eyes can the NFL take and survive?

There is some truth to the notion that troubles inside the NFL are not a public relations nightmare, no matter how many people seem to think so. So let's be clear.  Domestic abuse is not a public relations problem. Child abuse is not a public relations problem. And while all sports carry risk, unnecessary risk is not a public relations problem. These issues aren't black eyes. They're actual punches.

If anything, the problem isn't public relations but this notion that a public relations problem can be weighed, balanced, and counterbalanced by public perception. The real problem is a mitigation issue, which requires a much more proactive focus on long-term measures that reduce or eliminate risk.

Sure, some might argue that everyone has a different threshold in regard to these issues, especially those associated with individual players and their private lives. But highly visible brands can rarely afford the luxury of ignorance. They have to draw a line. For the NFL, the line could be its organizational values as well as a clear code of conduct for players on or off the field.

How a disaster planning model could bolster the NFL brand.

1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. In this case, it would include a review of the organizational values, policies, and code of conduct that the organization, teams, and players agree to adhere to.

2. Preparedness. Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities will ensure the proper coordination of action any time there is a violation of policies. All too often, people see the NFL as being inconsistent in its actions when it would outline something consistent such as treatment as warranted, suspension during investigation, or/and termination on conviction.

3. Response. While response means something different in a natural disaster, the NFL could still benefit from an organized response. The NFL already has a method for issuing certain rulings, but it seems to lack the structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness) to adapt. A clear response to individual, team, or organizational issues would be welcomed.

4. Recovery. Just as recovery aims to restore the affected areas to their previous state before an issue, the NFL could certainly be more proactive in the issues that have been thrust upon it. It is almost unconscionable that no one has thought to allow individual players speak out against domestic violence and child abuse given that the majority of players can live up to their role model images.

Where strategic communicators and public relations practitioners can make a difference is facilitating the communication necessary to help make organizational changes and in providing insight into how other publics (and the public) are reacting or responding to the issue. They can then clearly communicate any organizational decisions and/or work with various publics to reach a consensus.

Naturally, not everyone will agree with whatever decisions are made. But history has shown, more often than not, that people are more accepting of organizational decisions (even those they don't agree with) that are thoughtfully considered, relatively consistent, and within the scope of established values. In fact, this is why so many other sports don't fall under the same scrutiny. They didn't build their brands on representing American values like football has tried to do for the past several decades.
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