PR Failure #5: NFL, Divided We Stand

Aaron Blank / June 28, 2018


Failure is inevitable, especially in the PR world. It’s what we learn from that failure that matters the most. Each month, we at The Fearey Group review a PR failure made by a brand, company, nonprofit or personality and tell you how we think it could have gone differently. The big idea here is to learn from these mistakes and become a better community together. Read about April’s PR misstep here.

We’ve set our sights on the NFL as May’s blunder brand, and here’s why.

The Story

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced a new policy that mandates all players on the field stand during the national anthem. The statement released states that “this season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.” The Commissioner did not comment on, and the policy does not outline, what is deemed disrespectful other than kneeling.

This comes in response to an unprecedented 2017 season spawned by Colin Kaepernick, who in protest of the oppression of people of color by the government and law enforcement, decided to sit during the national anthem in 2016. Many players followed suit, choosing to kneel in protest and solidarity. This caused a national rift, as many (including President Trump) believe this is disrespectful to our country. Alternatively, many believe it’s their right to peacefully protest, whether in agreement with the method or not.

The Mistake

Lack of clearly defined outcomes and policy guidelines.

Being “disrespectful” is subjective, and clearly shown in this example. What’s disrespectful to one person may mean something completely different to another. The newly enacted policy only dictates that players “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” What else constitutes as disrespect? Who will be the judge? And what will the commissioner deem as “appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem”? There’s a lot of gray area here and differing interpretations are sure to surface.

Inconsistent messages.

While Goodell mentioned the unanimous vote several times in the press conference, mixed messages are being released. New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson said his team would not punish any player who protests in an interview with Newsday. Goodell also mentioned speaking to “tens, if not hundreds of players” about their stance on the issue at hand, insinuating players had a large say in the passing of this policy. However, the National Football League Players Association quickly responded saying they were not consulted before the vote.

NFL Seahawks


Short and insufficient Q&A in the press conference.

Commissioner Goodell took questions from four reporters after the announcement of policy changes and other league announcements. Questions were answered, albeit in an increasingly flustered manner. It was clear that either the Commissioner was ill prepared for in-depth questioning around the matter or, responses to inevitable questions were not well thought out.


It’s important to be 100 percent accurate and transparent when discussing news. Particularly around news that will rattle a nation. Commissioner Goodell stated that the vote among owners to pass the policy was unanimous, however Jed York (of San Francisco 49ers) said his team abstained from the vote. This is a small item but it is rather confusing.

The Lessons Learned

When your brand or company has huge news that will knowingly be controversial to the audience you serve, it’s imperative to be transparent, in sync with all communications partners, and thorough and accurate in messaging. If you’re going to say that support was unanimous, it better be just that. In this case, Goodell is trying to paint a picture of false solidarity and in doing so, is harming the credibility of the entire league. While no communications plan would have caused this news to sit well with a large population, the brand’s credibility and trust can be maintained through transparent and thorough messaging and delivery. Best of luck to the NFL in managing what we see as a PR nightmare in the coming season. We’ll be watching, like most people, from the sidelines.

Be Fearless! Sincerely,
Aaron Blank, CEO & President
The Fearey Group


Aaron Blank GIF

Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of Fearey, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!