Crisis Case Study: Baiting the Media in the Court of Public Opinion

Last Sunday’s overtime win against the San Diego Chargers gave the Washington Redskins a reason to celebrate, at least temporarily, as the storied franchise continues to make headlines both on and off the field.
 
The team’s losing season is only part of the problem.  A new report by the Pew Research Center revealed that 76 news outlets have publicly announced their opposition to the name “Redskins” or have banned or restricted its use in editorial coverage. 2013-09-11-WashingtonRedskinsLogo
 
Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and anti-defamation groups reignited the decades-old issue earlier this year calling for the removal of the name, saying it is a racial slur and offensive toward Native Americans.
 
Owner Dan Snyder for years has been adamant about not changing the team’s name.  He made headlines last month after sending a letter to fans defending his reasons against a name change.  He’s not alone either.  A Washington Post poll found that a majority of D.C. residents (66 percent) are against a name change.  Other published polls also show support for the name, even among Native Americans.
 
While the 76 news outlets that came out in opposition to the name are only a small portion of the media landscape, they certainly pack a punch.  Several high profile journalists have created national news themselves by opining their reasons for the Redskins name to go.
 
Whether a reporter “becoming” the story is bad for an outlet’s credibility will continue to be debated.  Most journalists try not to get involved in their own stories, although that is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s highly fragmented, 24-hour media landscape.  Either way, it makes for good television and sells newspapers.
 
The fact is the Washington Redskins are in crisis, a battle with the courts of both legal and public opinions.  And there aren’t any signs of it tapering off, although published reports indicate that the NFL has been meeting with Snyder and the Oneida Indian Nation to address the controversy.
 
Even though the owner, team and fans like the name the way it is, the current reality is creating too much controversy around the brand, which equates to lost dollars and can impact future revenues.  That’s a recipe that can’t work in today’s NFL as pro football teams look to sell products, licenses, and TV and radio rights outside their respective locales.
 
All this makes for an interesting public relations case study for today’s business organizations.  First off, executives always must be mindful of sending correspondence, whether it’s targeting consumers, customers or even shareholders.  Most times these communications will be leaked to media or appear across social media platforms, as in the case of Dan Snyder’s recent letter to fans.
 
This case is unusual because many of the fans and ethnic groups that may be affected don’t mind the Redskins name.  However, the issue has created a broader movement among media and anti-defamation groups, which appear to have their own agenda under the guise of eradicating racism.
 
The reality is Snyder is in a difficult situation: succumb to public pressure or stick to his proverbial guns.  This instance may be reminiscent of a business executive passionate about a company function or an unrelated personal issue.  There is no easy solution in these circumstances, especially if the executive has a legitimate position.  It’s also extremely difficult to win in the court of public opinion, let alone going toe-to-toe with national media.
 
CEOs and business executives can learn from the Redskins’ current communications crunch.  For Snyder, the strategy now is to manage the PR crisis, probably taking a reactive approach, rather than a proactive one, which may only continue to fan the flames — a strategy worth remembering when dealing with the next corporate communications crisis.
 
— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

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