Well Played, Patriots
Amid the most talked about PR crisis of the early summer, Paula Deen, another potential PR crisis was brewing in my hometown of Boston, where New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was recently charged with murder. The Patriots acted quickly – less than two hours after his arrest, the team cut Hernandez. They issued the following statement: “A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
The Patriots also announced a free exchange for Hernandez jerseys in their pro shop. “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 spokesman Stacey James said in a statement. “We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots Pro Shop for another player’s jersey will be well received by parents.”
Here, the Patriots smartly considered the lifeblood of a pro sports franchise, their young fans. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am hopeful I can turn my two daughters into passionate fans as well, in spite of how the sport has been tarnished by widespread doping. In this instance, the Patriots have reached out to parents who are faced with the difficult task of talking to their kids about Hernandez. While the conversation will still not be easy, the opportunity to pick out a new jersey will excite children and help cement their team loyalty.
Were the Patriots’ moves fueled by ethics and protection of its fan base, or solely self-preservation that was messaged by a crafty PR team to appear as the former? New York Times columnist Greg Bishop calls the team’s actions an example of the “Patriot Way” – anything that takes away from winning is a distraction that must immediately be eliminated. He writes, “Hernandez helped New England win dozens of football games, but the Patriot Way never left room for nostalgia, or misguided loyalty, or anything but decisions cold and calculated. When usefulness ended, so did contracts, even for community pillars and locker room staples.”
Bishop goes on to argue that other teams may have waited out a trial before officially cutting Hernandez. After all, Hernandez has not yet gone to trial and in this country, legally, one is innocent until proven guilty. Additionally, no one could argue that this move is most decidedly a blow to the Patriots’ roster, as time is running out for the aging Brady to lead his team to one more Super Bowl victory before retirement. Former teammate Deion Branch has publicly stood by Hernandez and many other teammates are remaining silent.
Perhaps it’s naiveté, but I find that Bishop’s view of the Patriots’ decision is too one-sided. Based on their actions, I’m hopeful that team management also considered public sentiment and “the right thing to do,” as their statement explained.
From a crisis communications perspective, the Patriots’ very swift and confident actions are air tight, especially when considering other outcomes. In the face of a high profile and very public crisis, it’s easy to fumble. Here, the Patriots reminded us of key crisis PR principles:
- Act quickly and decisively
- Issue statements that are authentic, genuine and specific
- Know all audiences – consider everyone affected by the “brand”