Learning From the Mistakes of Others

Q. Boyer

Watching the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal play out, I’m dumbstruck by how inept and counterproductive the NFL’s handling of the situation has been. From the start, the NFL has violated essentially every fundamental rule of public relations and damage control, something that’s very hard to fathom coming from an organization that has, by and large, done such a good job managing its image over the years.

Before I get into the analysis, it’s important to acknowledge a fundamental difference between the NFL and the adult industry where public relations challenges are concerned. The NFL’s reputation, hitherto, has been impressively Teflon in nature. The Ray Rice domestic violence case is hardly the first time a player has been involved in a heinous act of violence, after all, but this is really the first time the public furor has had an impact on the league. That makes it somewhat easier for me to understand how and why the NFL has been caught off-guard during this ongoing PR disaster.

The next time you think PR trouble is brewing for your company, don’t do what the NFL and Goodell did. Get out in front of the story, don’t attempt to weasel your way out of trouble, and be proactive, dammit!

The adult industry on the other hand …. Well, suffice to say we’re not likely to get much deference or benefit of the doubt from anyone – but that just makes the rules for proper handling of public relations nightmares all the more important.

Get out in front of the story: The first and most fundamental mistake the NFL made was in letting the media drive the narrative, and putting itself into a reactive mode from the start. Clearly, the NFL hoped if they just handled the matter quietly, the public and media would be quiet about it, as well. That was a terrible assumption, one that was without sense or foundation. Given that the public had already seen the part of the video that showed the aftermath of Rice punching his then fiancée – footage that was plenty inflammatory on its own – the NFL should have known that the old ‘sweep it under the rug’ routine was not a feasible option here.

What the NFL should have done is take a minute to read and consider the writing on the wall; knowing that Rice had knocked his fiancée unconscious, knowing that it took place inside an elevator at a casino, they had to know the incident itself was on video, whether or not they were able to see that video. They also had to know that what was on that video would be pretty horrid; people generally don’t lose consciousness after being struck with a light blow, after all. Regardless of what the district attorney decided to do, the NFL had a separate responsibility to effect discipline of its own, so it needed to consider the offense in a way that was separate from the government’s investigation, as well.

You have to act, yes, but you also must explain your actions: Much has been said about the two-game suspension the NFL issued to Rice, and how unacceptably light that punishment was. I’m inclined to agree, but I think from a public relations standpoint, the problem was less the NLF’s initial punishment than the total lack of explanation that attended it.

Had Roger Goodell explained that the NFL based its suspension largely on the decision by the office of the district attorney to divert Rice into a pretrial counseling program rather than prosecuting him, people probably would have been less inclined to jump all over the NFL later, as the story progressed and the situation received more public scrutiny. In effect, Goodell could have focused the public’s ire more on the office of the district attorney, and less on the NFL – and on himself, as it has turned out.

Recognize that it’s not just facts, but perceptions, that matter: The facts of what Ray Rice did are terrible, but from a business and PR perspective, the public’s perception about the NFL’s failings in this case are worse.

It’s a fact that the NFL is a professional sports league, not a court of law. It’s also a fact that, historically, the NFL hasn’t issued strong punishments against players who have been accused (or for that matter, convicted) of domestic violence. It’s also likely a fact that one reason why Rice’s punishment was so light was that the NFL feared that if they threw the book at him, Rice would appeal, and as part of his appeal, ask the arbitrator or court to consider all the past punishments the NFL had issued for similar offenses, something that would require the NFL to disclose information concerning all those past cases – something that would be a PR nightmare all its own, naturally.

None of those facts matter as much as the perception that the NFL needed to do more, however, and the NFL should have been able to anticipate that manner of reaction.

When it comes to hand grenades, it’s generally better to be the one who pulls the pin: Even after their initial botching of how they handled the situation, the NFL could have managed the optics much better. As the public outcry grew, Goodell did do one thing right; he admitted that they had “gotten it wrong” when it came to Rice’s punishment. The problem is that this slight palliative was nowhere near sufficient to calm the chorus of harshly critical voices. Seeing the intensity of the public furor, Goodell had an opportunity to do something dramatic; he could have called for a third-party investigation (which is now happening anyway) of the way the situation was handled by the NFL. He could have created a new fund that benefits victims of domestic violence and proposed that a percentage of every NFL player salary be donated to that fund – or better yet, kickstart the fund personally by contributing a bit of that roughly $37 million that he earns as the NFL Commissioner. The public scrutiny would still be there, but all those actions could have helped to significantly blunt its force.

Don’t use technical-but-irrelevant truths as a shield: Goodell says that the league couldn’t get the elevator footage, because it would have been illegal for the DA to provide the footage to the league. This may be technically true, but it’s also irrelevant. The NFL’s investigators have far more leeway than do the police, or any investigator who works on behalf of the government. It’s pathetic to use this technicality as an excuse, and the invalidity of the excuse was plain for all to see. Goodell would have been better served by simply saying something like: “You know what? We screwed this up entirely, from start to finish. I’ll be more specific: I screwed it up. I’m not defending our actions here, anymore. I’m saying let’s get to the bottom of it, learn from it, and do better in the future. There’s no excuse, we just have to do better. Period.”

By being more candid, proactively scrutinizing and demanding more accountability of his organization (and of himself) and putting the NFL’s cards on the table all at once and from the start, Roger Goodell could have created the impression the NFL was on top of things – or that he was, at least. Instead, Goodell responded to the situation in piecemeal fashion. As a result, the scrutiny is coming, but it’s coming without any of the PR benefits that would have been there had Goodell driven the bus, instead of simply waiting for it to run him over.

It’s easy to pick on the NFL now, but sometimes it can be hard to see a shitstorm coming until it’s raining feces in your front yard. In this case, however, the PR forecast clearly was predicting a downpour of excrement, and now Roger Goodell is standing in the deluge of crap without so much as an umbrella.

The next time you think PR trouble is brewing for your company, don’t do what the NFL and Goodell did. Get out in front of the story, don’t attempt to weasel your way out of trouble, and be proactive, dammit! If you do all that, by the time the next shitstorm arrives, you might at least have somewhere dry to stand.

A 16-year veteran of the online adult entertainment industry and long-time XBIZ contributor, Q Boyer provides public relations, publicity, consulting and copywriting services to clients that range from adult website operators to mainstream brick and mortar businesses.