New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is charged by Jupiter Florida police with soliciting a prostitute in a strip mall massage parlor. Kraft denies any wrongdoing but this is one time when Bill Belichick’s vaunted playbook won’t be of use. How will Kraft and his advisors follow a different playbook — one for crisis communications? We may not know the full answer for weeks or months but in the initial hours the answer is mixed.
Kraft, through his spokesman, was right not to clam up (that’s a New England term) with a strict no comment. Within the first 20 minutes the story was exploding across all forms of media and already headed for the late show monologues. Absent any comment the void would be filled with the kind of colorful, speculative scenarios that any sports talk show host can brew up with ingredients like sex, the NFL, a billionaire owner and a seedy massage parlor. That’ll still happen — but at least Kraft’s statement will be part of the mix.
A closer look at the statement reveals some flaws. His spokesman said that Kraft and his organization“categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”
Time to call a flag on the play. One of the prime rules in an unfolding crisis is to say only what you know to be absolutely true. Are they really sure there was no illegal activity? After all, the police hid video cameras in massage parlors and videotaped interactions between men and the female employees. Then, at a news conference the police chief clearly identified Kraft, the Patriots owner, as the one charged. Someone is walking out on a limb.
The second mistake was use of “no comment” phraseology. In the public’s mind “no comment” stands alongside “I take the fifth” as a euphemism for having something to hide. Changing a few words can make a huge difference in perception. “No additional statement will be made at this time” would have worked just as well.
And then we have the classic response to any court action with the phrase “Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.” There’s the courtroom, and then there’s the court of public opinion. This isn’t the CEO of some unknown company allegedly caught at a rub and tug, it’s the celebrated NFL, one of American’s most valued and protected brands. NFL policy holds players and owners to high standards and they can be punished for“conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the league.
To cut off all future public comment at this early stage because it’s a“judicial matter” is a classic legal response geared to courtroom procedure when the more important venue is outside the courthouse in the crazy, uncontrolled world of the media, which has no procedures.
Although over-responding is a common mistake in a crisis when not responding is often the best way to make it go away, it’s poor strategy to shut off all future public statements when there may come a time where something surfaces in the media that is so outlandish it demands a response.
The Patriots and the NFL have lots of PR and branding wizards. Use them. For Kraft and the League to safely navigate this crisis they shouldn’t rely on personal decisions clouded by emotion, or personal lawyers, who may focus too narrowly on their client and the actual courtroom. The more important venue is the town square where the damage to the reputations of Kraft, the Patriots and the NFL will be decided.