When you have a massive national profile, speaking off the top of your head without clarity can generate blowback. This is especially true if the topic being discussed is sensitive, or if it’s at the forefront of a national narrative. This reality was lived out in real time recently by superstar New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Speaking to online media via video conferencing, Brees was asked about the protests happening across the country, specifically his views on flag protests. Brees made it clear he didn’t support what he deemed to be disrespect to the flag. Those comments immediately went viral, drawing quick negative responses from across the world of sports, including from teammates who are very close to the famous QB.
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who’s been one of Brees’ favorite targets on the football field, summed up his thoughts on Brees’ initial comments by saying, “He don’t know no better … We don’t care if you don’t agree …”
And Thomas was far from the only athlete to speak out, prompting a follow up response from Brees, in which the quarterback took a much more nuanced and thoughtful stance:
“I would like to apologize to my friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday. In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused …”
This mea culpa was only the beginning. Brees followed these statements by making it abundantly clear exactly how he felt about the cause behind the current protests:
“I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy … This is where I stand: I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference …”
Brees accepted responsibility for his comments, and went on to take proactive action to be “part of the solution” going forward. In this statement, we see a solid three-point primer on how to publicly respond to an emerging PR crisis.
- Brees admitted he made a mistake, without ambiguity or dissembling.
- Brees restated his intent, while expressing empathy to those who had been hurt by his comments.
- Brees acknowledged his immediate responsibility and promised to continue positive improvements going forward.
This simple template can be customized for many different crisis PR situations. While it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all, the basic principles are solid and applicable in many situations. As was said by another one of Brees’ teammates on ESPN after the apology, “He owned his mistake and took responsibility … That’s leadership.”
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.