Cindy Miller Communications spent this week at the International Risk & Crisis Communications Conference in Orlando. You’ll see what we learned pop up in future blogs and client work, but here’s a snapshot of one of the dozens of speakers we heard at the conference, and a piece of what we learned.
By now the story is all-too familiar. National Football League player Ray Rice is arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, his coach immediately comes to his support, the team owner passes it off as case of drinking in public and the commissioner of the NFL casually acknowledges the incident but surmises there will be no punishment from the league.
Then things started to unravel in slow motion for Rice, the Baltimore Ravens player, and the commissioner, Roger Goodell. A grand jury indicted Rice for aggravated assault, the team then held a press conference at which Rice apologized for the situation but not the violent assault on his girlfriend-now-wife who was sitting next to him in front of the microphones.
Five months after the initial assault, Goodell finally met with Rice and ordered a two-game suspension, the football equivalent of two slaps on the wrist.
Then the slow-motion attempt to contain the whole affair accelerated when TMZ released a video of the February assault in a hotel elevator. The social media universe lit up with overwhelming condemnation of Rice, the Ravens, the NFL and its commissioner. The next day the team released Rice and Goodell ratcheted up the suspension from two games to “indefinitely.” The day after that, The Associated Press reported that despite its statements to the contrary, the NFL has seen the incriminating video months before.
At the International Risk & Crisis Communication Conference in Orlando this week, Ted Kian, a professor of sports media at Oklahoma State University, summed up the fumbling and bumbling this way: “All parties failed badly in their messages, strategies, tactics, consistency and leadership.” He didn’t leave much room for praise.
It would take a dozen blogs to appropriately pass around the blame, but two elements are worth noting for businesses facing crisis-like situations.
- The power of social media. As Kian observed, it was the anger triggered by social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, that turned the tide. When it was clear that the fans would not tolerate any of the behavior –– from the violence to the cover-up –– the principals had to respond and retreat. This social media convulsion was triggered by the release of the video.
- The futility of containment. Everyone tried to ignore or minimize the implications of the incident. They failed at that, too. The data, in this case the full dimensions of what happened, soon overwhelmed the attempts to limit the damage. The truth may or may not surface in these cases, but when it does, woe to those who try to hide from it.
The lessons of crisis management for businesses everywhere should be clear. When there’s a problem you hope will go away, resist that thought and own up to what went wrong and your part in it. That’s where your defense and reputation restoration must begin. If popular football players and multi-billion-dollar sports leagues can’t hide from consequences, it’s not likely you can either.
P.S. The only good thing that came out of this story was that the Domestic Violence Hotline saw an 84 percent spike in calls during the two days after video was released. Let’s hope that heightened awareness of the problem endures.