5 PR Takeaways From Watching the NFL Fumble the Ray Rice Scandal

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NFL brass must be breathing a sigh of relief. The Major League Baseball playoffs have begun, the 2014-15 NHL season has taken to the ice and the first tip off of the  NBA's the new season.

Luckily for the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell, there will be plenty of action on the field, court, ice and diamond to distract from the dog pile of off-the-field issues and embarrassments tarnishing the NFL shield over the past several weeks.

Over the past several years, the NFL has become one of the most powerful and profitable sports brands on the planet, generating more than $10 billion a year in revenue even though, ironically, the league itself is structured as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(6) organization.

Related: In a PR Crisis, There's No Room for 'No Comment'

Despite the league’s unprecedented prosperity, the recent spate of bankrupt behaviors alleged against some of the NFL’s most prominent players have marred the league’s marketing and money-making prowess. Most notably:

·          Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, was most recently charged with two counts of aggravated assault against his 18-month old child.  

·          A felony child abuse indictment handed up against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Petersen, which involved his 4-year-old son. Peterson is alleged to have stuffed leaves into the boy’s mouth and then reportedly hit the child around the legs, buttocks and genitals with a whip-like tree branch.

·          Carolina Panthers defensive end, Greg Hardy was convicted of assaulting and threatening his girlfriend back in July but will be back in court next month to appeal that verdict.

·          Lastly, the two videos depicting the act of domestic abuse and its aftermath at the hands of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice was released from that team after the second video of him cold-cocking his then fiancé in a casino elevator was released publicly last month.

Few organizations could endure such a string of distasteful, high-profile allegations and observed violence against women and children, let alone the overwhelming negative backlash that repeatedly slammed against the shield.

In spite of the unsavory nature of these swirling situations and shifting circumstances, there are some noteworthy lessons to be learned from the league dropping the ball regarding the issues of domestic violence and child abuse. The following five takeaways can serve as cautionary warnings for any organization of any size from a one-person start-up to a mutli-billion dollar enterprise.

1. Don't play the results

The NFL and Baltimore Ravens stood by the initial two-game suspension leveled against Ray Rice in July. However, once the video went viral of him knocking his fiancé out cold in September, the league spastically instituted a new personal conduct policy that required a minimum six-game suspension for a first offense and a life-time ban for a second offense. While Commissioner Goodell assumed responsibility for not being tough enough on Rice initially and “getting it wrong,” the revised policy came across as a knee-jerk reaction to play the results rather than a bona fide attempt to get it right. Caring more about the public reaction rather than the underlying issue – in this case domestic abuse – will almost always land you on the wrong side of right.

2. Businesses must have anchoring principles/values

Business leadership guru, John C. Maxwell wrote a book more than 20 years ago titled There are No Business Ethics, the premise of which states that there is only one standard and value set for appropriate business conduct, that being the Golden Rule – doing unto to others as you’d like done to yourself. One of the most damning accusations leveled against the NFL, its teams and commissioner over the past several weeks was that they only cared about one thing - money. Perhaps if Maxwell’s book was required reading for all NFL executives and personnel, they might have tried to make the best decisions surrounding the abuse allegations rather than the most profitable decisions. Strong principles can anchor and help your organization navigate a crisis.

Related: The PR Crisis Playbook

3. Quickly engage potential critics when facing unknown issues

This particular lesson requires a large dose of humility and vulnerability. It forces you to admit what you don’t know. Regrettably, you don’t see it used enough in times of crisis because leaders “must” always appear in control. However, when it’s clearly an issue involving injury to victims, a little vulnerability can go a long way. Until this year, the NFL had never faced a situation similar to the video of Ray Rice clumsily dragging his unconscious fiancé from a casino elevator with all the care and affection of a potato sack.

With that single video – and nothing else– the NFL should have immediately engaged the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Organization for Women or any number of other women’s groups to help it better understand the issue of domestic violence. It should have also included the NFL players’ union to form a task force or implement mandatory training across the League back in February when Rice was first arrested. The moral here, admitting that you don’t know something in a crisis and need help, can be an honest display of strength –not weakness.

4. Take responsibility and action without delay

 This was the biggest lapse in leadership on the part of Commissioner Goodell. Putting aside Goodell’s initial false-start, two-game suspension against Rice, the Commissioner waited 10 days after the actual face-punch video was public before he spoke publicly to the media. Goodell, reading through his stiff apology and subsequent announcement that he would not step down, came off as tone deaf. He missed an opportunity to turn the entire abuse scandal around.

At the very least, Goodell should have relinquished his disciplinary authority over the League to an independent panel or a respected individual, such as the unimpeachable football fan Condoleezza Rice. He did no such thing and his credibility has been severely damaged as a result. The best leaders take responsibility and take action – quickly!

5. Understand that crises come in bulk

It’s always surprising how organizations, large and small, think that once a crisis clears a given news cycle, the respective organization is in the clear as well. That’s not how the media, nor crises, work. Once a crisis erupts, organizations need to prepare for a wave of additional, follow-on, unforeseen issues that often arise. The higher level of media/public scrutiny during a crisis frequently focuses a spotlight on other issues that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

For example, the child abuse charges against players Jonathan Dwyer and Adrian Petersen drew significantly more attention due to the Ray Rice and Greg Hardy cases. The result was the media linked them as “abuse scandals” due to the nature of the incidents. That is the calculus of media coverage. Organizations need to plan in advance to ensure they can endure multiple waves of coverage and social media grilling.

Ironically, despite these PR bungles, poor judgment, mismanagement and aforementioned personnel fouls that have pocked the NFL shield, the NFL television ratings continue to rise. It seems that, for now, both the NFL and Commissioner Goodell have weathered their fumbles, miscues and bobbling of the abuse scandals. The long term is less certain. The NFL's recent fumbling of the child abuse and domestic violence scandals will not endear the league over the long term to concerned moms already appalled by the Richie Incognito racism/homophobic videos earlier this year and frightened by the retired players' class-action concussion lawsuit and the recent CTE findings from the VA study that examined the brains of deceased former players.

The average player's pro football career is less than four years. The league relies on a steady supply of boys who aspire to the NFL. The NFL seems invincible in the short-term but they need to worry if the tarnish on the shield results in moms deciding they won't let their sons play football in middle school, high school and college.

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