An interesting lesson in crisis communications

If you know anything about football or have been paying attention to the news at all lately, you’ll know that the National Football League has had quite the scandalous year. From a PR standpoint, it’s been nothing short of a nightmare!

Most recently, the NFL and my home team, the New England Patriots, have been stuck in this infamous, never-ending controversy known as ‘deflategate.’ As a refresher, deflategate came about when Tom Brady - quarterback of the Patriots - was found to be playing with footballs that looked to be deflated during the first half of 2015 AFC championship (the game before the Super Bowl XLIX). Some say deflating a football is supposed to give a person a competitive advantage (it’s easier to grip), but the Pats still demolished the Indianapolis Colts 28-0 in the second half after the footballs were corrected. Did it really make that much of difference? Eh, no! Pardon my biased tone, I grew up in the greater Boston area.

Deflating footballs is a clear violation of the NFL playing rules and unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time the Patriots have been found doing questionable things. This led a sequence of on-going awkward press conferences and media reports, which had Brady, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell under fire.

Under pressure to act, the league decided to investigate the situation, which was led by attorney Ted Wells. They released a nearly 250 page Wells Report which found that Brady was “generally aware” (and most likely he was) that the footballs were deflated. The league suspended him for four games (that’s fair, he broke the written rules of the game), fined the team $1 million (they can afford it), and took away certain drafting picks until 2017 (that hurts).

In effort to fight back, the Patriots launched a website called The Wells Report in Context, which has their lawyer explaining or disproving the most incriminating claims from the original report.

For example, the NFL and Wells Report discussed a series of suspicious text messages where a locker room attendant called himself  the “deflator.” The Pats and The Wells Report in Context justify that is was a conversation about one locker room attendant’s efforts to lose weight.

Brady has since appealed the ruling through the NFL Players Association, and Players Association requested for a neutral arbitrator. Roger Goodell denied the request and said that he would preside over the appeal. This decision has brought an immense amount of criticism against him and the league from fans and the Patriots, who are accusing Goodell of being unfair. This has *slightly* shifted the media focus away from the Pats and back on the NFL.

The Wells Report in Context does serve as an interesting lesson in crisis PR and how a company or organization can respond if they feel like there’s no way out of a bad situation. Some of the points may have been absurd, but the Pat’s report was simple, to the point, and tells their side of the story in their own words. Since the appeal hasn’t happened yet, it’s very likely this story will remain in the news cycle and will be interesting to see how it all unfolds as the new season begins. Stay tuned!

Cutline Communications
Published: Jun 2, 2015


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