Master of Science in Sport Management Online

3 Examples of PR Done Wrong in Sports

Athletes are potential gold mines for public relations professionals. With so many oversized personalities and over-the-top fans, it seems like someone is always making news, and not all of it good. Johnny Manziel was a great example of a sports PR nightmare last season, but his team managed it well. Other disastrous events, however, didn’t go over so well. Take a look at these three examples of PR gone wrong.

Roger Goodell and the NFL

Sports PR

Image via Flickr by Keith Allison

The year 2014 was a rough one for the NFL and its beleaguered commissioner. Perhaps its most spectacular PR fail involved the Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice domestic abuse arrest and its aftermath from start to finish. After the arrest came to light, Goodell took his time in announcing his punishment — a paltry six-game suspension — which ignited a media firestorm. Goodell committed a cardinal PR sin in the event of a crisis. He hesitated and hid, escalating the outcry.

When TMZ published the ghastly video from the hotel elevator of Rice cold-cocking his then-fiancée, the firestorm turned into a conflagration that caught Goodell unprepared. Adding obfuscation, equivocation, and confrontation to his catalog of PR sins, Goodell declined to take a proactive position in the scandal, although he ultimately handed down an indefinite suspension for Rice. That episode led to vigorous calls for Goodell’s resignation.

Close on the heels of the Rice scandal, the news broke that the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson had been indicted on child abuse charges for taking a switch to his four-year-old son. In another widely criticized decision, Goodell suspended Peterson for the rest of the season. These two PR disasters took a real toll on the NFL’s reputation and serve as a lesson in how not to manage scandals for future sport management professionals.

Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Legendary assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple charges of sexual abuse during his tenure at the University. His abhorrent behavior was uncovered and publicized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg. Despite the University’s knowledge that the scandal was about to blow up, it made the terrible PR decision to batten its hatches and stay silent from March, when the story broke, until November, when it finally hired a PR firm, Ketchum, to clean up the mess.

Despite spending over $208,000 a month in damage control, nothing was able to stop the cascade of bad publicity that followed, and the University has yet to recover its reputation.

The NHL and Head Injuries

The 2011-12 season was highly injurious, both literally and figuratively, to the NHL. Two star players, Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger, suffered serious injuries that led to a real image problem for the league. In addition to its negative reputation for unnecessary violence, three in 2011 under suspicious circumstances. The league failed to engage in good PR practices and the 2011-12 season saw a decline in fan loyalty.

When trouble breaks in sports, the best defense is a good PR offensive. Be sure to keep these three failures in mind when considering your next PR move.