Deflategate: A Crisis Communications Disaster (and What You Can Learn From It)

It is an understatement to say that the reputations of NFL quarterback Tom Brady and his New England Patriots football team are taking hits that would make an all-pro linebacker proud. Both Brady and the Patriots are iconic brands that now find themselves in a crisis communications disaster. Unfortunately, like many brands, they brought the disaster upon themselves.

Deflate-Gate. NFL football deflated on the field

Brady has been at the center of, “Deflategate,” the name given to the scandal that began during last year’s NFL playoffs. He allegedly directed equipment managers to deflate footballs ever so slightly to improve his grip in the colder weather. The Indianapolis Colts filed a grievance with the league, an investigation ensued and the drama began. It has intensified this week in the wake of an extremely harsh penalty handed down by the league against Brady and the Patriots. In the end, both Brady and the Patriots have severely damaged their respective brand images.

The saga begs the question: Is there anything you and your organization can learn from Deflategate that will help your crisis communications effort protect your brand reputation? Here are four steps to make sure you don’t fumble like Brady and the Patriots have.

1. Lose the arrogance. From the beginning of this thing in January (2015), both the Patriots and Brady have been defiantly arrogant, especially team owner Robert Kraft. His statements heading into the Super Bowl were laden with condescension and arrogance. Has anybody in corporate America learn anything from Enron, Tyco, HealthSouth, WorldComm, Arthur Anderson, Bernie Madoff and Lance Armstrong?? Arrogance that fuels denial passes into the realm of verbal bullying. The expectation is that those who seek the truth should cower. In the end, it proven for so many to be a long, humiliating fall. (“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18).

2. Own the mistake. What if when confronted with this Brady had come to the microphone and said, “Yeah, guys, we all use poor judgement from time-to-time and this was on me. I’d like to apologize to Mr. Kraft, Coach Bilichick, my teammates, the NFL and the Colts.” Yes, I know there are repercussions for saying that, but would they have been as severe as the consequences now being faced? In the end, a case could be made that Brady’s brand value would have actually gone up for “manning up”!

3. Don’t hide leadership. Once Brady owns the mistake, it’s time for leadership to lead, including Brady himself. This means internally and externally. The earnestness of Kraft could have been much more effective defending the fact that his quarterback admitted a wrong. It could have been a leverage point for communicating the “integrity” of the organization. He could have even imposed his own internal penalty against Brady to show the “no tolerance” stance of the Patriots. Leading a cover-up is not leadership.

4. Create a road map. You have to respond to the initial crisis tsunami, but you also must map a strategy for moving ahead as quickly as possible. Clarify the message and prepare speakers. If leaders don’t drive the message, the organization looks reactive and wishy-washy. Communicators need to help prepare leaders. (I discuss this in Five media relations tips for when reporters call). Since “customers” determine brand value, the court of public opinion matters and a road map is designed to enhance the chance of a quick recovery.

There are two types of organizations in the world: Those who have had crises and those who have yet to have a crisis. Make no mistake, crises are a part of brand repetitional management. Done well, brand equity can increase. Done poorly, you risk becoming the punchline of a joke that will be perpetually attached to your brand.

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