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Deflategate: A Case of Poorly Played Crisis Management

by | May 22, 2015 | Public Relations

They’re calling it “the biggest non-domestic violence, non-murder accusation PR disaster an NFL team has faced in a very long time.”

While the press is having a field day with the fallout from Deflategate, brands are happily lining up take the metaphorical kick.

And like any good PR catastrophe, it even has its own remix.

So how did a few suspiciously under-inflated footballs inspire a news circus that just won’t quit? The answer can be traced back to the early hours of the scandal.

It was an error of strategy as much as a failure of morals,” says sportswriter Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. “Humility would have quelled the controversy, but the Patriots’ arrogance sparked it.”

A series of indignant denials — including Brady’s lapsed memory about the existence of a locker room attendant — ensured both the NFL and the press would continue their pursuit.

online news over time

As the chart above shows, mentions of Deflategate in online news stories in May have been consistent and sustained since news of the NFL’s punishment of the Pats was made public. And while article volume peaked on May 12, this past Monday still had more than 2,000 online mentions — almost all of them being negative toward the Patriots.

Even worse, a recent report from Marketing Arm’s Celebrity DBI determined that Tom Brady’s endorsement value has plummeted from 967th to 3,027th in just a few months. “Brady had been on par with celebrities like Cameron Diaz and John Hamm, but his trust level is now equivalent to that of conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and actor Billy Bob Thornton,” according to The Score’s Caitlin Holroyd.

Kilgore says Brady should have swiftly owned up to the meddling, cut a cheque for the fine ($25,000) a week before the Super Bowl (in early February) and killed the story before the alternative compounded it into an ever-newsworthy scandal still going in May.

In the end, it seems, the Patriots broke more than a few rules with the league: they also broke the cardinal rule of crisis management, which is to react immediately and consistently with full transparency.

Brady’s blasé attitude (“this isn’t ISIS”) and the Patriots’ response were vast miscalculations, particularly given the delicate environment in which they were operating. Hot on the heels of the Ray Rice scandal, the NFL is all too aware that they’re in the red when it comes to public relations these days — and Deflategate hasn’t helped with that.

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