sports pr crisis

As 2019 draws to a close, it could be instructive to look back at some of the notable sports PR misfires over the past year. We’re not ranking them or comparing them, only looking to see what we can learn from them.

The New England Patriots were back in the news recently as what’s being called another potential SpyGate crisis is unfolding across Sports Media. The team denied any responsibility for or knowledge of the perpetrators of the latest case of someone associated with the team filming an opponent’s sideline. But many fans, pundits, and opposing team officials aren’t buying it. They figure, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Meanwhile, the Pats’ owner, Robert Kraft, was dealt a personal PR blow earlier this year, when he was charged with solicitation of prostitution in connection with a law enforcement investigation of suspected human trafficking. The details of the story proved too juicy for many media outlets to ignore, putting Kraft and his team into the position of responding to questions and narratives that had nothing to do with the Patriots’ chances of getting back to the Super Bowl. The story also tarnished Kraft’s otherwise stellar personal reputation.

Speaking of the NFL, the league’s officials have been taking a beating since the NFC Championship debacle last year, and fans this year are not letting up. The league tried adding new rules and new coach’s challenges to in-game play in an effort to stem the tide of negative press.

But, given the response, all this seemed to do was further highlight officiating miscues. In today’s game, with the camera technology and real-time breakdowns, more fans are seeing the game clearer, and it’s a lot easier to make calls while watching the game in slow motion, than it is in real-time at NFL speed. This has led to a perception of more egregious calls this year, during the regular season, and the league has been on the defensive about it all year.

Apparel maker Nike was hit with an embarrassing headline when one of its marquee stars, Zion Williamson, had his shoe essentially tear apart during a game, leading to a nagging injury. It didn’t help the brand that one of the people at the game who called out the broken shoe happened to be former US President Barack Obama, a clip that is still getting social media play.

The negative PR might have ended for Nike when Williamson was drafted into the NBA, but then the player expected to be the league’s next superstar suffered another significant knee injury. Story after story about the new injury referenced the “sneaker blowout” injury from earlier in the year. So, Nike endured round after round of additional PR embarrassment.

Each of these stories has at least one factor in common: one headline snowballed into multiple, ongoing negative stories, sometimes cooling down then hitting the headlines again several months later. The lesson? Just because a PR crisis fell out of the news cycle doesn’t mean it won’t come back. PR campaigns should have evergreen elements to some of the messaging, allowing brands to smoothly and quickly respond when negative stories come back around.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.