5 PR Experts Weigh in on NFL’s Attempt to ‘Combat Domestic Violence’

Peaceful football

We’re all well aware that the National Football League has a big problem on its hands. A recent YouGov survey tells us that the NFL brand has experienced “the [sharpest drop] in consumer perception since Target’s data breach” last December.

Here’s something you may have missed this week: in order to confront all that terrible publicity, the league announced the creation of a “social responsibility team” consisting of its own community affairs VP Anna Isaacson and three (female) advisers, each of whom have built careers as experts on the prevention of domestic violence and sex crimes.

The question: is this a meaningless stunt or an earnest attempt to address underlying issues?

This week, we spoke to five industry experts to get their take on the league’s move. For context, we’ll start with quotes from two of the women involved, who will be responsible for “policy-making and education.”

Jane Randell, Former SVP of corporate comms/CSR at Kate Spade and co-founder of NO MORE, a national initiative intended to raise the profile of and normalize the conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault:

“The opportunity we have to make change is tremendous, and the NFL has said it is committed to getting this right. In helping the NFL appropriately address domestic violence and sexual assault, my top concerns are the many women, men and children that continue to suffer and the people who work tirelessly to help them every day. These are the people to focus on. They are what this effort is really about and why it is so important.”

Rita Smith, a domestic violence expert who served as Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence for nearly 23 years:

“There has been an enormous amount of dialogue about domestic violence during the past week, some of it amazing, like survivors voices sharing the reality of the impact on their lives, some of it very wrong and re-traumatizing those who are living in fear. I have been given the opportunity to work with the NFL to build a substantial and long term response to domestic violence and sexual assault. I am excited about the change we can make together, and have no doubt this work will save lives and change the culture of how we think about these issues.”

So that’s the official word. Now the experts that we contacted weigh in, emphasis ours (note that these opinions are their own and do not reflect those of their employers).

Scott Beaudoin, global practice director of corporate & brand citizenship at MSLGroup:

“It’s clear today that business is held to a higher standard than government, and it’s both a tremendous burden and an opportunity.

The NFL must go beyond viewing this as a social responsibility. That’s their first mistake. Business today must transcend the antiquated social norms of the past and use their powerful resources to lead societal change.

This action by the NFL is table stakes: too little, too late. What I and certainly a majority of the younger people in the country will be watching for is how they use their tremendous household penetration, media partnerships and influence to uplift society in solving one of the greatest social issues of our day.”

Christine Pietryla, senior comms consultant at Chicago’s Pietryla PR & Marketing:

“The NFL’s brand is built on sportsmanship and emphasizes the personal and professional growth of its players. It sells itself, and all of its merchandise, based on the strength of its brand. It should have moved quickly at the beginning to match its actions with its mission to build trust in its brand promise.

Appointing this group of women could be the beginning of the NFL actually acting upon its brand promise. I hope so. Proving that’s true will require swift, caring and immediate action by this new group as well as NFL management each and every time something similar happens in the future.”

Carreen Winters, EVP of corporate communications/reputation at MWW:

“The NFL has been widely criticized for consistently ignoring allegations of a growing culture of violence, particularly violence against women, while owners stay silent and put the players in question right back on the field.

The NFL appears to prefer playing defense — responding to issues only if or after they become public.  The creation of the “social responsibility” team may be viewed by some as another reactive “PR Stunt,” particularly to the 45 percent of their fan base that happens to be female.  However, this is an opportunity for the NFL to change perceptions that it places profits above people, and be proactive about preventing violence and holding players accountable, not just investigating incidents after the fact. There are many professions that require compliance with a code of conduct as a condition of employment; the NFL should be no different.”

Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich:

“Behind ‘don’t lie’ and ‘go ugly, early,’ the next step in crisis communications is ‘don’t do it again.’ The NFL is making strides to not allow this to happen again — even as more and more players are being taken off the field for domestic abuse, corporal punishment, and sexual inappropriateness — and this is a good first step.

I’m fearful, though, that this is just window dressing (as University of Notre Dame professor Clark Power said). Sponsors are leaving and many others are threatening to do the same. The league may need a total house cleaning (starting with the resignation of Goodell) before a social responsibility team will be able to have any affect on what happens off the field. The problem is no one trusts Goodell anymore…and that trust is very, very difficult to regain.”

Sandra Fathi, president and founder of Affect PR:

“If they were really serious, someone would pull up the criminal records of every player before determining whether they should play. But I don’t imagine that happening, because the sins of these athletes are forgiven on a sliding scale based on how much money they bring in.

I don’t think anyone is naive enough to think that the NFL didn’t know what happened in that elevator. The only reason they’re taking action is the fear that public outcry will hurt their business. The hiring of these advisers is a nice gesture, but let’s not pretend that this is the only dark element lurking among pro football players.

This is purely a PR move. I won’t criticize them for taking this step, but it’s literally a drop in the sea as to what they need to do to have an upstanding, moral organization across the board. I still hope that it could lead to some change within the NFL, even if that change is fear-based; maybe they will have more sensitivity toward domestic violence because it’s the focus of the day.

Sadly, it’s an everyday occurrence — and not just in professional football. We also hear stories about college and even high school athletes getting a free pass for abhorrent criminal activity.

It will take much more than hiring a few advisers.”

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.