This Fall’s Spooky Crises Bring Back Ghosts of Prior PR Nightmares

This Fall’s Spooky Crises Bring Back Ghosts of Prior PR Nightmares

As Halloween approaches, some scary PR crises have jumped out from the hedgerow. We can turn and run, or confront them. Or, as those young adults did in that humorous Geico commercial, we can hide behind the chainsaws.

As a crisis PR counselor, I choose confrontation. The crises that have popped up this fall require us to fight back even if those creating the crises don’t seem to have learned from their previous missteps.

I’m talking about two famous entertainers: the National Football League and Kanye West. Each of them has induced multiple PR nightmares recently, and each provides lessons on what to do – and not do – during a crisis.

 

Kanye (aka Ye)

It’s difficult to know where to start with Kanye’s PR mistakes. There was his wearing of a “White Lives Matter” shirt at his Yeezy brand fashion show in Paris. Then there were his anti-Semitic posts on Twitter and Instagram that included a message saying he was going to “death con 3” on Jewish people. Kanye also took time from his busy October ranting schedule to falsely claim George Floyd was killed by fentanyl, not by a since-convicted cop. 

The first PR advice to Kanye would be “stop!” Stop talking, writing, posting and texting. But Kanye is unlikely to curb his penchant for controversial language and statements. After all, part of his fan base’s attraction to him is his outlandish behavior. And temporary bans from Twitter and Instagram only serve as band-aids. But what could force corrective action is for the brands who back him to rise up, renounce his actions and sever their financial ties.

Chief among them is Adidas, which initially did the right thing by stating shortly after the “White Lives Matter” shirt incident that it was putting their relationship on hold. (To which Kanye responded on Insta: “F—K ADIDAS I AM ADIDAS ADIDAS RAPED AND STOLE MY DESIGNS.”) But the company was slow to respond following his most incendiary remarks – resulting in a flood of criticism of Adidas on social media and elsewhere.

Slowness in responding to a major crises is a brand’s worst enemy. It sends all the wrong signals (the company doesn’t care, money is more important than doing the right thing, etc.) Yet it wasn’t until this past Tuesday that the company finally spoke out – and ended its relationship with Ye. 

The company’s statement (which was strong but almost too late): “Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness."

 

The National Football League (aka NFL)

The league tried to tamp down one crisis before the 2022 season kicked off, then created another, briefly came to its senses, but will face another with great certainty come early December.

The pre-season crisis was star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who during the offseason was traded to the Cleveland Browns and received a five-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million. The reason for the trade: Two-dozen female massage therapists filed lawsuits alleging Watson was sexually inappropriate with them, and the NFL was highly likely to suspend the QB for a lengthy period.

The first lesson of any crisis is to take control of the situation. Don’t cede responsibility to someone else. Yet that’s exactly what the NFL did. After doing almost nothing during the 2021 season, the league and the player’s union agreed to have Watson’s punishment decided by a retired federal judge.

That backfired when the judge handed down what many complained was an overly light sentence: a six-game suspension. Suddenly, all of the NFL’s prior missteps on incidents involving players and various types of misconduct returned like ghosts in a graveyard. (Remember Ray Rice’s initial two-game suspension for assaulting his wife? Or Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension after inappropriately touching an Uber driver?)

The NFL wobbled following the judge’s decision before ultimately reversing course and suspending Watson for 11 games. Still not enough, critics lamented, for a league out of touch with its growing female fan base and its female employees. The crisis may worsen soon, as Watson is set to return to play on December 4 and now faces a 25th lawsuit. 

Hopefully the NFL is preparing a new round of messaging to explain all that it and Watson have done during his suspension to earn the trust of fans, and why it believes he deserves to once again step on a football field.

It doesn’t help that the NFL has been distracted by another PR headache: criticism of its concussion protocol in the wake of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s repeated head injuries. Just days after leaving a game showing concussion symptoms (and then returning minutes later to the game), Tagovailoa suffered a concussion during a nationally televised game in which he writhed on the ground in grotesque fashion following a tackle.

After each incident, the NFL was caught message-less despite growing concerns about the long-term impact of concussions and CTE. Only when pushed by the NFL Players Association did the league update its concussion protocol.

Even so, the NFL continues to run a playbook crafted by the worst PR crisis clients: Slowness to respond (see Adidas above) or take responsibility. Not taking action commensurate with the seriousness of the incident. Appearing tone-deaf to criticisms and calls for more aggressive action. Bad, or non-existent, messaging. A lack of new policies that adequately address the issue.

These are the actions that lead to a loss of public trust. Adidas can regain some even if Kanye West cares not to; the NFL can do the same but only if it begins adhering to the basic tenets of good crisis communications.

 

If not, more horror awaits them and us.