The cardinal rule of the practice of PR should always be: “Do the Right Thing.”
But sometimes, an organization trying to extricate itself from the center of controversy must do “the expedient thing” before it can deal with what is ultimately “right.”
The current Trump-NFL contretemps offers an instructive case study.
Here are the PR realities of this latest example of the world’s wackiest President snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
First, the National Football League was well on its way to getting fans to forget the problems introduced by former NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick, who last year famously refused to stand for the National Anthem and salute the flag for a country he claimed “oppresses people of color.” This year, no NFL team chose to pick up Kapernick’s option, and the league began to put Kapernick and the controversy he caused in its rear view mirror, that is, until …
President Knucklehead Smith tweeted that players who knelt during the anthem should be fired, thus reigniting the unwanted, unneeded and ultimately unwinnable firestorm. Why, you may ask, would anyone volunteer to restart debate on such an incendiary and unrelated issue? Answer: Because he’s President and you’re not.
Second, the Kapernick controversy isn’t at all about “racial injustice” or “racial inequality” or even “personal freedom,” as the players and coaches and owners and commissioner proclaimed after Trump’s tweets. Rather, the issue is about disrespecting the American flag and the Star Spangled Banner and the soldiers who died for everyone else’s personal freedom and the country these things represent. (Predictably, a day late and a dollar short, Trump’s advisors made him tweet this corrective message well after Sunday’s games and the public opinion damage was done.)
The point is that of course, in America you have the right to kneel for the National Anthem. No one disputes that. The question is, “Is it right?” The answer to that is, “No,” it isn’t but …
Third, because Donald Trump stuck his big yap in the middle of the debate, the NFL and its owners had no PR choice but to come out in solidarity with the players and lock arms in support of “racial justice” and “racial equality” and “personal freedom.” Had they not done so, they would have been branded as “racists.” Because the President bastardized the conversation, the only PR solution for the NFL was to do the expedient thing.
Similarly, doing the expedient thing was the right PR solution when CNN immediately fired comedian Kathy Griffin when she thought it funny to dangle a severed Trump head before the cameras. And it was also the right solution when KB Homes immediately slashed the bonus of CEO Jeffrey Mezger and Griffin’s Hollywood neighbor, when it was disclosed that the foul-mouthed CEO had used most un-CEO like language against his loud-mouthed neighbor.
By the same token, the failure of the New York Yankees to do the expedient thing after a little girl was horribly struck by a foul ball was a significant PR blunder. The Yankees should have announced immediately — but still haven’t — that the team would install increased protective stadium netting. Eventually, the Yankees will install such netting, but the public relations black eye for not doing it expediently will remain.
Which brings us back to the NFL and its Trump reaction problem. Now that the teams have locked arms with the players, what PR path should owners follow now?
Here’s what I’d recommend:
• One, take a cue from Philadelphia Eagles’ lineman Chris Long, who donated minority scholarships to his hometown of Charlottesville, VA, and contribute money, support or time to organizations working toward racial equality and justice.
• Two, limit your involvement to these charities and avoid public statements that might expand the controversy, i.e. let your actions speak for you.
• Three, push the discussion away from politics and back onto the field where it belongs.
The PR axiom is that no business — be it retail or banking or energy or computing or professional sports — courts controversy, particularly when it has nothing to do with the business itself. Controversy is the enemy of doing business.
So, the best PR result for the NFL is for President Trump to get back on more familiar turf and start again bad-mouthing North Korea and Rocket Man and leave pro football alone.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is the author of the Prentice- Hall text The Practice of Public Relations, now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of Rethinking Reputation and Idea Wise. He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.