4 Crisis Communications Lessons for Schools and Universities as the NFL Management Struggles with the Ray Rice Smoldering Crisis

rayrice apBy Gerard Braud

A school or university can face a crisis in their athletic departments in the same way the NFL faces a sports crisis this week.

Do you have a school crisis communications plan to address a sports or athletic crisis?

Study the NFL crisis and consider how communications could and has affected this crisis. For example, will the crisis get worse because of non-verbal communications? Can the NFL management communicate their way out of the crisis? Below are some observations and suggestions to help you cope with your own school crisis.

The non-verbal message from the NFL is that they are more concerned about one man hitting another man in the head on the field than they are about a man – essentially an employee – hitting a woman in the head, or more specifically, punching the woman in the face.

That non-verbal message speaks volumes and creates a crisis within a crisis.

Another part of the crisis is the NFL saying they have been unable to obtain the most compelling video of the actual punch. TMZ – not even the mainstream media, but the tabloid media – did what the NFL could not or would not, according to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. From a non-verbal standpoint, this communicates that the NFL didn’t want to try as hard as they could, fearing the crisis might get worse. As we see, the crisis did get worse and is getting worse because the NFL executive management failed to fully investigate the crisis, perhaps in fear of what they might discover. Or, if reporting by the Associated Press is correct, the NFL had the incriminating video, but perhaps failed to take stronger action until that video went public.

On the plus side, Goodell has done media interviews and apologized. In too many crisis case studies there is a clear failure to apologize.

On the plus side, sporting goods stores have positioned themselves as heroes in the crisis by communicating their willingness to exchange Ray Rice football jerseys for new jerseys if a fan feels betrayed and regrets owning a Rice jersey. This is great customer service and frankly, great public relations, for essentially “doing the right thing.”

On the plus side, AE Sports is removing Rice from their video games. Again, this is great public relations, for doing the right thing.

Both the sporting goods stores and AE Sports have actually capitalized on the crisis in a way you might not expected, but in a way that creatively allows them to denounce violence against women.

When crisis management is botched because of failed communications, there is usually fallout. Usually people get fired and revenue is lost.

Already people are calling for Goodell to resign. Will he lose his job because of the perception created that he and the NFL were protecting their player hoping the fallout would not get worse? More than one expert is predicting a revenue loss for NFL sportswear among females, after years of high revenue growth from apparel sales to women.

What can you learn from this crisis?

1) When a smoldering crisis breaks out, you, the public relations professional, must vigorously investigate the case behind the crisis. Approach it like an expert prosecutor or an expert investigative reporter. You need to know what the school officials might not want to know or what the school administrators know but have not told you.

2) The PR team must also look for school administrators who are in denial. Denial is characterized by the administrative team’s subtle attempts to move forward as though the smoldering crisis will not ignite.

3) On a clear sunny day, make sure your crisis communications plan outlines procedures for investigating a smoldering crisis and responding to a smoldering crisis. Too many PR people and school crisis communication plans are structured to respond only to natural disasters and sudden emergencies. It is a huge crisis communication plan failure to not anticipate your reaction to a smoldering crisis.

4) Define a crisis for your school as anything that can affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization. The loss of votes on a tax issue for schools is a reflection of revenue loss for a school. The NFL crisis is a perfect example of something that is neither a natural disaster nor a sudden emergency, but certainly something that will affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization.

Experts will tell you that in most schools, you are more likely to face a smoldering crisis than you are to face a sudden emergency or natural disaster.

If you have more questions about preparing for a smoldering school crisis please give me a call at 985-624-9976.