Ad Review: NFL PR Effort Is as Laughable as Its Morals

Everything League, Commissioner Are Doing to 'Protect the Shield' Failing Miserably

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The NFL has never had less integrity than it does this week."

That was Grantland.com's Andrew Sharp in a piece last week titled, "What Does It Take to Get Roger Goodell Fired?"

Obviously, everything the National Football League and its commissioner are doing to "protect the shield" is failing miserably.

And that's largely because Mr. Goodell and the League created a crisis that has become all but PR-proof absent the hiring of a Super Bowl-worthy crisis-PR person. (That the league has yet to do so is mind-boggling.)

The short version: In February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was accused of assaulting his then-fiancée; video of him dragging her out of an elevator shocked fans. At the time, no video from inside the elevator was released. After months of "investigating," the NFL suspended Mr. Rice for two games. This led to such fierce blowback that the league changed its policy toward domestic abuse.

Crisis averted!

Not quite. Last week, TMZ released video from inside the elevator, showing Mr. Rice punching his fiancée (now his wife). Then the Ravens released Rice, as did the NFL.

Message: Domestic violence will be punished when caught on embarrassing videotape.
Mr. Goodell and the League then swore up and down that this was the first they'd seen of the video.
It was a page straight from the "They're Idiots, They'll Believe Anything" PR playbook.

The league that gathered 18,000 pages of evidence against the New Orleans Saints during the "Bountygate" scandal; the league that once strong-armed marketing partner Toyota into changing its ads; the league that backed ESPN out of participating in a PBS documentary about concussions; the league that gets major cities to all but gift it multi-million dollar stadiums. That league claimed it couldn't get its hands on video acquired by TMZ.

And then the AP reported that someone had sent the video to the NFL back in April.
At the time of this writing, Mr. Goodell had tapped a former FBI director to further investigate the investigation.

Let's not pretend that the key to crisis communications is honesty or transparency -- or even something to be admired in a morally devoid case such as this one. It's usually a matter of apologizing profusely and giving consumers just enough to shut them up, usually by way of firing someone.

And Ray Rice's removal might not be enough to quiet the horde (and it shouldn't be).

But the League is doubling down on Mr. Goodell, who's been very good at keeping the money flowing and, until now, winning PR battles by saying the right thing about player safety and conduct as well as pinking the league once a year for breast-cancer awareness.

The NFL will survive this. Too many fans love too much about the sport itself. And too many media companies and marketers have too many millions tied up in it. But that doesn't mean this lethal mix of stupidity and hubris hasn't led to one of the worst PR efforts in league history.

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