A Crisis Management Expert Reviews The NFL

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Crisis management expert Gene Grabowski believes the NFL should be more proactive in its handling of the domestic abuse scandal. (Elsa / Getty Images)
Crisis management expert Gene Grabowski believes the NFL should be more proactive in its handling of the domestic abuse scandal. (Elsa / Getty Images)

When corporations and public figures end up in major controversies, they often turn to a form of public relations known as crisis management. The current crisis in pro football was brought on by players who committed or allegedly committed acts of domestic violence and assault, and by the NFL commissioner's response, which was been judged inadequate at best.

Gene Grabowski is a senior strategist for Levick, a communications firm that handles crisis management. He joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the NFL's response to its ongoing controversy.

[sidebar title="'Willful Ignorance On Domestic Violence'" width="630" align="right"]Investigative reporter Jeff Benedict looks at the history of the NFL's domestic violence problem.[/sidebar]BL: Gene, let's start with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's press conference on Friday. What stood out for you?

GB: Well, I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the news conference actually made the situation a little worse because it was a little short on specifics.

The commissioner made the announcement that a committee was going to be working on processes and new procedures and that they would have something to report sometime around the Super Bowl, which is a long time away.Then, when he took questions from reporters, he didn't quite handle them as deftly as he probably had hoped. So I think, in a way, more damage was done than any provision of clarity.

BL: Do you think anything Roger Goodell said in the press conference addressed the dissatisfaction many people have felt with his handling of the domestic abuse issue?

GB: I think that for some people it was good to hear that he felt that he acted incorrectly and that he was taking some steps to correct the situation. But it didn't go far enough. I think that the people that were dissatisfied to begin with remain dissatisfied and, if anything, they are probably angrier now than they were before the news conference.

BL: You spoke of a lack of specifics. Commissioner Goodell did not address the apparent contradictions in this episode: did the NFL have the second Rice tape or not? In what way was what Ray Rice said to the Commissioner "ambiguous" as the Commissioner maintained — because Rice had said he was very specific when he described the incident, and there were several others who reported that as well. Were you surprised he didn't speak directly to those issues? 

BL: It's often said that money talks. And a number of prominent NFL sponsors including Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch have issued statements expressing concern about the ongoing domestic violence controversy. But those companies have not pulled their ad dollars. From the NFL's perspective, do those warnings of sponsors have any impact?

GB: I think they have a limited impact at this point because the NFL product is unique. It gets 17 million viewers on a Sunday, so I think that the ad sponsors are going to stay at least for the time being. I think that a lot more pressure has to be brought to bear before they will pull up stakes.

BL: This week in a post on Only A Blog, we noted that after one of the worst weeks in league history, the television ratings for Sunday Night Football were actually up. Do you see any signs that the domestic violence and child abuse stories will damage the NFL's business?

GB: I don't think it's going to damage the business per se. I think that the fans will continue to watch. I think the advertisers will continue to advertise. However, I do think that the NFL, in order to remain a member in good standing of corporate America, is going to have to make some very strong changes. Its programs are going to have to stick. It's going to have to show that they mean business, and at some point, if the pressure continues to mount among people whose opinions do count, there could be extraordinary pressure on Roger Goodell to leave his post.

In our line of work, sometimes we say, perhaps cavalierly, "The gods demand a sacrifice." And it may be that the owners feel that they have no choice but to sacrifice Mr. Goodell. It's too early to say whether that will happen, but it's a real possibility if things continue the way they have.

This segment aired on September 20, 2014.


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