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.

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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.

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's "40 under Forty" list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations" is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities.