Sports Business Daily has followed this interesting storyline of Canadian hockey teams taking the H1N1 vaccine and the public controversy that followed. Why is taking a vaccine a big deal? Millions of Canadians who have been waiting in line to get this vaccine have yet to get the vaccine, while these professional hockey players seemingly jumped ahead in the queue line according to those angered by this situation.
Since there is a lot to this story, let me break it down for you by bullet points:
- The Calgary Flames were the first organization to be mentioned by the media, but the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors (NBA) were later added to the discussion.
- The Flames’ players were given the opportunity last Friday to take the vaccine. The players were not required to do so by the team, but it sounds like the majority if not all of the team took the shots. The same players did not realize that they were “jumping” in line or even how many people were waiting for a vaccine.
- It appears that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players were actually the first to receive the vaccine last Tuesday after a home game, but word did not get out until two days after the news about the Flames.
- The provincial government is particularly upset, which the Globe & Mail suggests is due to the fact that they were already taking a lot of heat for how they have handled this vaccine allotment and seeing pro athletes get the vaccine over pregnant women and children just added to the flames.
- High at-risk individuals are to be given the vaccine first and with the low supply should be the only ones to receive the vaccine in Canada right now. These individuals would include “children between the age of six months and five years, pregnant women, elderly people and health-care workers.”
- So if athletes don’t fall under that umbrella, how did they get the vaccines for the team? Toronto says they did not go through improper means to do so and the Flames seconded that statement.
- The Calgary Herald later reported that a mid-level manager in the province health superboard was fired after it was discovered he was why the Flames jumped up in the queue line: “Cooney said the manager was the most senior staff member involved, adding the person was senior enough that the Flames would have no reason to believe the decision to go ahead with the shots was inappropriate.” A second worker was also fired in the connection to this H1N1-Gate as some are calling it.
- A column in The Toronto Star says that it’s no surprise professional athletes got preferential treatment over the Average Joe, which gets at the heart of this controversy and why this is such a PR problem for the teams.
- The Ottawa Senators made it clear by Nov. 5 — the day that news about the Maple Leafs broke — that they had not received the vaccine yet and they would be waiting in the queue with everyone else and that the shot would not be a requirement for its players.
So how did these different sports teams respond to this unique controversy?
The Philadelphia Eagles announced the signing of Michael Vick to a two-year deal last Thursday night, sending shock waves around the sports world. While it would take me way too long to try to roundup all the Vick coverage, I do want to address some PR-related articles and comment on the signing. Please feel free to chip in your two cents in the comment section, I’d love to hear what you are thinking on this situation.
PR for Vick
SPRB had previously linked to a blog post at Shutdown Corner that talked about what Vick needed to do upon leaving prison to get his career back in order. Gable PR also offered up some suggestions for Vick to help rehab his image.
The process began when Tony Dungy spoke with Vick while he was still in prison. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell learned of that conversation and asked Dungy to formally take Vick under his wing and help guide him as he returned to the NFL and life after prison. He has also been speaking with Boys & Girls Clubs about dog fighting and the importance of loving your pets. Vick agreed to do an interview with James Brown for 60 Minutes, which many deemed a success for both the athlete and the program.
The next step was to sign with an NFL team, which he did late last week. A press conference was held to address the signing with Vick, Dungy, and head coach Andy Reid speaking with reporters. The Phanatic Magazine has a transcript up of the remarks that were said.
I came across this 2002 article from the Colorado Springs Gazette that gave a behind the scenes look of how the USOC public relations staff handled the Tonya Hardig and Nancy Kerrigan situation in 1994. While it may not be a recent article, it still is a great read about sports PR in a crisis and how an incident can drastically affect the image of an athlete.
With more than 800 reporters, live television feeds back to the United States, and a buzz in the press hall like none I had seen since the 1980 media session with our gold medal-winning ice hockey team, Schiller and I opened our program with two prepared statements.
Harvey, a brilliant and charismatic leader who was in the process of leading the USOC to five of its most productive years in history, had taken a lead role in settling this controversy when President LeRoy Walker had been hobbled by knee surgeries and the organization embroiled in quicksand over what to do with Harding. He was equal to the challenge.
We had been instructed by the Executive Committee to make our statements and leave, taking no questions or elaborating on our decision.
Harvey read our statement, and I read Harding’s, written by attorneys. I had written the USOC statement, which stated, “We are appalled still by the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, which was not only an attack on the athlete, but an assault on the basic ideals of the Olympic Movement and sportsmanship. The attack was designed to cripple her, alter the competition, and could have ended her career. We remain deeply concerned about this incident.”
Schiller exited after we read our statements, but I got caught up in the crush of reporters and cameras at the bottom of the stage. I also felt that there were questions to be answered and spin dispensed, and, if I got fired for doing so, who cared? I stood for 90 minutes with my USOC sidekick, Jim Fox, and told our side of things. It was the most intense experience I have ever enjoyed as the USOC chief spokesman.
Chris Botta, former VP of media relations for the NY Islanders, recently spoke at Hofstra and he made three key points during his talk about PR.
- Make sure everyone in the organization is on the same page, from the president to the receptionist.
- Be pro-active. Tell your story, even if it’s a tough one to tell. Don’t hide.
- Be honest. You start to twist, spin or out-right lie, you’re screwed.
While these tips are helpful in all PR, I’m going to specifically apply them to crisis communications. Let’s use the example of a serious crisis situation during a hockey game. In November 2005, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer collapsed on the bench during a game against the Nashville Predators. Thanks to quick thinking by a doctor, who sits in the seats behind the bench, and an AED, Fischer’s life was saved.
When a crisis likes this happens, your sports organization will already have a system in place. While I don’t have any responsibilities in a crisis (other than to stay out of the way) as an intern, I know what each of my bosses should be doing and they each have different people to contact. A plan made ahead of time allows the organization to be on the same page. Additionally in a crisis situation, there is usually one person who addresses the media. By having just one contact, it ensures that there are no discrepancies in remarks by different people.
Secondly, be pro-active. When a crisis happens, keep the media informed and be sure to abide by that. It can help prevent the situation from getting out of control and it allows your organization’s stance to get out there before the public forms their own opinion. By then, it can be too late.
Finally, never lie. Ethically speaking, it’s wrong. But it’s just a plain dumb idea anyways. Be honest.
I grew up watching Detroit Lions football, but sadly I can only truly remember a couple of seasons with Barry Sanders. As a little girl, I elected to also watch and root for another more successful team in the NFL. First, it was the San Francisco 49ers with Steve Young and than it morphed into the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre (at that age, I didn’t really grasp the concept of division rival). Anyways, I still try to watch Green Bay games even to this day because there is something about watching the crazed, frozen fans at Lambeau Field cheering on their beloved team with visions of Brett Favre running through snow dancing in their heads. As much as I hate to admit it, both Favre and the Packers fumbled their PR snap in the recent fiasco.
Green Bay Packers PR Fumbles
Apparent lack of anticipation. If you had to pick one player in the world who would retire and then decide to return, who would you pick? I’m sorry, but Brett Favre has to be on your list of top ten choices. As a member of their PR and management staff, it would seem like a great idea to discuss the possibility of Favre deciding to return before the 2008-2009 season and then developing a game plan in case it actually happens. By not having a game plan, the Packers staff had to call a timeout while public opinion was already forming before they could take this any further.
Weren’t clear and consistent. When Favre indicated that he wanted to return, Packers GM Ted Thompson stated that the team was committed to Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. The Packers said that they would welcome Favre back into the fold as a player, but then at the same time offered him a $20 million marketing deal to stay retired. Management was satisfied with Favre returning as a back-up QB, but Favre understandably wanted a starting position. When it became clear of Favre’s desire to return as a starting QB even if that meant playing for another team, the Packers did their best to stall trading him and they had refused to release him. Had the team had a game plan to follow, they would have been able to be much more consistent and clear with the media and their fans. Consistency is key if you want to garner any credibility with your fans, especially with such a passionate fan base in Green Bay.
Shunned an icon. The situation was treated poorly and as a result, the team’s biggest icon was shunned. I can certainly understand head coach Mike McCarthy wanting to stick with Aaron Rodgers (even though I think Favre is the reason the team made it as far as they did last season); that’s his call as a head coach. However, the team did not handle this fiasco well with the face of their brand. I mean, the Packers brought up tampering charges against the Minnesota Vikings based on phone calls and texts made by Favre, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell later dismissed.
Didn’t appear to be sincerely concerned. An article by John Sprecher says it best,
When Packers general manager Ted Thompson responded to Brett Favre’s interest in returning to the team by sending him a text message stating, “I’m on vacation, I’ll get back to you,” it was apparent to the football consuming public that Brett Favre was not his priority, but almost his nuisance. And public perception is reality, so be prepared to appear and be concerned about your crisis or suffer the ire of your consumers.
Brett Favre PR Fumbles
Before this incident, Favre was beloved by Packers and NFL fans alike (even division rival teams’ fans admired the guy). Now some fans have become embittered, others grew frustrated with the situation, and even NFL players turned on him.
But how in the world does one of the most beloved sports figures of all time, a man who epitomized toughness and grit turn so soap opera-ish so fast? His PR tactics have gained him little if any sympathy, even from his peers. In my travels through camp so far, not one coach I’ve talked to agrees with his stance and the players have been split 50 percent somewhat sadly against Favre, 25 percent adamantly for Favre and 25 percent absolutely blasting him for the PR route he’s taken.
“I don’t care, it’s Brett Favre, give him his helmet back,” said one Bears player over beers the other night. “I don’t care what happened or how it’s gotten here, it’s freakin’ Brett Favre!”
“Don’t let him back in the building,” said a Rams veteran after practice on Sunday. “He’s made it all about Brett. I’d be pissed if I was in that locker room and he’s made it all about him all this time. Man, I’d want to move on. Enough already, it’s been about is he coming back or not for damn near four years. I’d be sick of it.”
Didn’t return to the Packers. The first PR fumble is that instead of waiting for Rodgers to have a bad game and stepping in and then taking the QB reins, Favre refused to play back-up. Instead of going to a playoff contender, he’s now the QB for the NY Jets who went 4-12 last season. While Favre can certainly help them improve this season, he would have had a much better shot at getting that Super Bowl ring staying with the Packers.
Went on the attack. According to Jay Glazer, a senior NFL writer at FoxSports.com, the legendary Favre verbally attacked the Packers’ management on TV.
However, legend or no legend, if in any other business an employee, even the top sales manager of all time, calls his boss a liar three times on national television, and then reveals conversations with his boss that were believed to be private and then threatens his bosses … seriously, how many of those folks would still be employed? How many players in this league would come through unscathed, especially in the wallet?
If I had been advising Favre during this scenario, I would have advised him to release a statement about the situation, personally deal with the team management and the league’s office, and stay out of the public eye as much as possible. Yes, you want Favre to earn his spot back with the team, but attacking the hand that feeds you and riling up the media and public isn’t really the best way to do so. Favre is the face of the franchise and him badmouthing the team and leaving for the Jets has left a PR scar on his personal brand.
Even as Lions fan, this fiasco has left a sour taste in my mouth as I no longer hold the Packers organization and Brett Favre in the same high regard I once did (I had previously likened it to the relationship the Detroit Red Wings had with Steve Yzerman throughout his career). Fortunately, the decisions have been made and Favre is playing for a new team allowing the Packers to focus on developing Rodgers. After 16 years with the Packers, Favre will always be a cheesehead and the Packers have also expressed interest in offering Favre that marketing deal once he retires for good.
Hopefully this situation will encourage other sports teams to evaluate their game plan should one of their star former players decide to un-retire because of the possible negative implications. The first step in crisis communications is planning and preparing in case of a crisis and this is situation was no different.