Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Patriots Were Ready in a Crisis

Loyalty is a two way street.  For instance, when a football team signs a player to a 7-year, $40 million contract, with $26.5 million of that guaranteed to the player, the team has a reasonable expectation that the player will not be indicted for first degree murder.

Aaron Hernandez didn’t keep up his end of the bargain this summer. As a result, the Patriots moved quickly and effectively to sever their relationship with him. Here’s how they got it right:

They Were Decisive

It’s rare for pro athletes to pay a price on the field, and in their wallets, for brushes with the law – particularly in the NFL.  What usually transpires is an elaborate rationalization of “errors in judgment” “regret", faux-“responsibility”, “let the process play itself out” - or just plain gibberish. 

The Patriots did none of that (although there was an initial stumble by owner Bob Kraft.)  Certainly the severity of the charge against Hernandez helped clarify their thinking, but the team didn’t indulge in the usual language of equivocation. They just cut him.

What makes this even more impressive is that according to media reports, had Hernandez been under contract and unable to play because he was in jail or suspended by the league, the Patriots might have been able to save up to $37 million.

They Understood that a Crisis is not the Right Time to Save Money

The Patriots calculated that the damage to the team’s brand was greater than the millions of dollars that it would cost them to cut Hernandez, plus the cost of some free uniform jerseys (see below).  Similar to US Airways brilliant handling of its passengers after one of their planes landed in the Hudson a few years ago, the Pats understood the costs and made the (correct) decision to pay them. 

They Were Prepared

The biggest enemy of preparedness is indecision.  Since the Patriots had taken the time to think things through and arrive at a decision, they were ready to act without delay when Hernandez was arrested.

It’s a Rule: The Media Needs Someone to “Take Responsibility”

The Patriots realized that, and Bill Belichick got the job.  "I'm primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation.” Belichick had characteristically left you wondering about the depth of his sincerity, but he had checked the “responsibility” box, and defused the line of questioning.  (Conversation for another day:  You have to wonder how effective this would be if the Coach didn’t have three Super Bowl rings and a .729 winning percentage in New England.)

They Didn’t Add Fuel to the Fire

In this case, the Patriots got a “Twofer”, because nobody can remove fuel from a fire like Bill Belichick (see above).  Belichick’s unique ability to stick to his message worked well here.

Nobody Said “No Comment”

No comment – the worst possible thing you can say, at least explicitly.  In this case, particularly in the immediate aftermath, Belichick effectively delivered the “no comment” message, but in the most effective way –
  • “I think we already addressed that.”
  • “I don’t have anything further on that.”  
  • “I’m not going to dwell on that.”  
  • “I’ve got to focus on winning for our football team.”
  • Etc.

The media knew they weren’t going to get anything more out of him, so they stopped asking.  And the fire goes out.

They Got a Little Lucky

Fortune favors the prepared they say, and in this case, the Patriots preparation yielded a little bit of luck: on the same day Hernandez was arrested and the Patriots cut him, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited ruling regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  This helped reduce the intensity of the media spotlight on Hernandez, at least for that crucial day. If the Patriots had been indecisive and not prepared to act in the immediate aftermath of Hernadez’ arrest they would not have benefited from the dilution of the media attention created by the DOMA ruling.

They Thought of Practically Everything

Giving yourself enough time to think clearly in a crisis can pay enormous dividends.  In this case, the Hernandez arrest was actually more about the Patriot’s brand than anything else – including winning on the field.  The Patriots realized quickly that in a region where almost everyone owns a player game jersey it would be damaging to have thousands of people walking around wearing the team jersey of an accused murderer who was no longer on the team.

They acted quickly to get the Hernandez jerseys off the street by offering a free replacement at the Gillette Stadium gift shop.  (At the same time they also no doubt collected an enormous amount of very valuable consumer data about fans passionate enough about the team to drive to Foxboro to get new jerseys.)

“We know that children love wearing their Patriots jerseys, but may not understand why parents don’t want them wearing their Hernandez jerseys anymore,” Patriots spokesperson Stacey James told the media. “We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots ProShop for another player’s jersey will be well-received by parents.”

Post Game

In the aftermath of the team’s success in countering the crisis communications challenges raised by the Hernandez case, Coach Belichick would be justified in offering his standard analysis after a Pats win:  “I think we executed some things well today.  Anything else?  Thank you.”

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