September 12, 2014 Kevin Erb


Roger Goodell, it seems, is having his Richard Nixon moment. The NFL commissioner’s week got off to a very bad start – and it’s only gotten worse from there. Over the past several days, public perception of the commissioner – and, as a result, the entire league – has gone from one of someone indifferent to domestic abuse and violence against women to someone either incompetent or knowingly lying to the public. Neither of these are particularly good, which is why the drumbeat of people calling for his resignation seems to grow by the hour.

While the story itself is by and large a sad and disturbing one for everyone involved, it does offer some timely reminders about the right and wrong ways to go about handling a crisis when it comes to communications. We can look at how to do it right by examining all the things the commish has done wrong to this point.

  • Be prepared. It’s not just for the Boy Scouts anymore. Perhaps the most glaring issue throughout the entire crisis this week has been how utterly unprepared the league has seemed to handle and address it. While any crisis and its particular circumstances are unique, having at least a basic, step-by-step plan for responding to it is a universal must for every organization. Many people think the NFL’s haphazard response stems in large part from the league’s widespread cultural popularity, which may have lulled executives into a false sense of security and infallibility. Which leads us to our second point..
  • Be humble. It’s rather clear from the very beginning of this situation all the way back in July that the NFL seriously misjudged the audience response. No one doubts the insane popularity of the league and the sport; conversely, the league never should have doubted the public’s ability to turn on it for a perceived misdeed of this magnitude, especially in this day and age, when social media enables outrage to spread much more quickly and widely. No matter how much your customers love you, always be humble enough to know it could change at any moment.
  • Be smart. Seriously. Don’t do dumb stuff, like lie or hide from public view as a crisis begins to unfold. It’s easier said than done in the heat of a moment and the trenches of a crisis response, but being smart, measured and appropriate in your response helps stop the crisis from spiraling further out of control.
  • Be honest. As Nixon showed us, the coverup is ALMOST ALWAYS worse than the crime. Now, to be fair, we’re not sure if Goodell is lying about not seeing the video, but it sure doesn’t look like he’s being truthful. And perception, especially in these situations, is reality. Better to be honest and upfront – even if it highlights your shortcomings or incompetence as a leader – than to be deceitful to protect your pride and your ego. We’re a forgiving country, and we love giving second chances. But not to liars.

If nothing else, use this week’s NFL fiasco as a reminder to make sure you’re prepared to handle a crisis. Like a fire extinguisher, you may not ever need to use it. But would you feel safe in your building without a fire extinguisher? The same goes for a crisis communications plan. As we always say, “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.”