The pre-Super Bowl hype was impossible to miss, at least for people who consume media content on a regular basis. To paraphrase Tom Brady’s “to me those balls are perfect” quote, the deflated football controversy leading up to Super Bowl XLIV (that’s 49 in English) served up the ultimate PR case study with plenty of takeaways to consider. We’ll get to those below but first, let’s look at the two weeks that inflated public debate over good, evil and the new American past time.
In case you missed it, the scandal dubbed “Deflategate” exploded after the AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots won the game 45-7, securing their place in the Super Bowl, but before the team finished celebrating, it was under attack, accused of using under-inflated footballs. The story, driven by the national sporting media, went viral within 18 hours. By nightfall, it was leading newscasts coast to coast – even though the story was entirely based on, pardon the phrase, media leaks from people with known grudges against the Patriots. Because “Deflategate” broke at the beginning of the Super Bowl hype period, it took on a life of its own. The first 72 hours of the scandal brought wave after wave of negative publicity as the national sports media blasted the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick and star quarterback, Tom Brady for fostering a culture of “rule breaking” that placed cheating ahead of fair play.
In fact, the white-hot negative coverage reflected the Patriots’ unparalleled record of success during the 15-year-long Belichick/Brady era and the legacy of “Spygate” scandal. In 2007, the NFL levied a $750,000 fine and other significant punishments against the Patriots and Belichick for willfully violating the NFL prohibition on videotaping opposing coaches during games (yes, the act of videotaping during a live event in front of 80,000 people is considered ‘spying’ in the NFL.) Based on the history of Spygate and the national sports media’s poor relationship with Belichick, the Patriots found themselves cast in the role of ultimate villain, just in time for the Super Bowl.
Every story, of course, has a multitude of sides. When the media firestorm roared out of control, the fiercely proud members of #PatriotsNation fought back on social media, using humor and defiance to counter the withering criticism. Fans launched dozens of inventive, heartfelt and memorable messages. The Locker Room Guy spoof on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” featured Hollywood luminaries and Patriots’ fans Matt Damon, Chris Evans, Ben Affleck and John Krasinski, placing the entire ‘crisis’ into a proper, and sidesplitting, context (“Let me ask you a question. Who are you going to believe? Tom Brady, the greatest guy in all of humanity? Or bunch of a$$#oles on Twitter?”)
Then the Patriots stepped up. As noted political media consultant Charlie Manning explained in this piece about “PDS” (Patriot Derangement Syndrome – perfect), the club’s PR counter-punch was both authoritative and effective. The team started with a focus on facts, or lack thereof. Pointed questions challenged the ‘cheater’ narrative. Back-to-back pressers (aka press conferences) from Belichick and Brady followed, with both emphatically denying any wrongdoing.
With ten days to go before the Super Bowl, the NFL seemed intent on leaving the Patriots under a cloud of suspicion. The league announced it would not issue findings for several weeks yet a series of leaks from inside the NFL served to fuel media coverage. Faced with the grim prospect of a Super Bowl ‘hype’ week marred by questions and accusations, Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft went on the offensive. Using forceful language and smart messaging, both vowed that no wrongdoing had occurred, period. Belichick took most of the air out of the story by explaining how science causes footballs to lose pressure in wet and cold conditions. Three days later, Kraft declared his unconditional support and demanded an apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell once the investigation proved the Patriots beat the Colts, fair-and-square.
In PR terms, this served as “Game On” and allowed a new narrative to take hold. The new storyline focused on an NFL “investigation” that suddenly appeared to be nothing more than a bunch of hot air with no evidence behind it. In short order, new leaks emerged that the badly-beaten Indy Colts were behind the investigation. The release of this information cast doubt on the NFL’s integrity and provided more ammunition that Patriots had done nothing wrong. By game time, the scandal was a sideshow and when the Patriots won an epic 28-24 comeback victory over the Seahawks, “Deflategate” was nothing more than a faint echo amid the cacophony of joyous celebration.
So what’s the morale of this two-week media saga? From the perspective of a PR pro, there are several useful takeaways
(1) Reputations Must Be Protected, Always
The Patriots were slow to react to the social-media driven scandal. It appears, because the team simply could not believe that anybody would believe a silly storyline about deflated footballs? Unfortunately for the Patriots, the initial decision to ignore the nonsense fueled a regional and national sports media that had no interest in benefit of the doubt seven years after Spygate. The lesson here is clear. Always protect the reputation, first and foremost, even against seemingly preposterous claims.
(2) Flip The Script
“Deflategate” showcased the ultimate PR conundrum. What’s the accused to do when faced with a claim based on hearsay and little else? A strong defense gives the charge credibility. Of course, ignoring a media-driven crisis is not an option. Predictably, the initial statements by Belichick, Brady and team owner Robert Kraft fell on deaf ears. The national media had rushed to judgment. After a week of playing nice, Belichick finally rewrote the storyline with a scientific defense (PV = nRT! a.k.a. the ‘ideal gas law”) and memorable, hilarious reference from the movie My Cousin Vinny. Once Belichick had sounded off, the media had a new storyline – “Wait a minute, science can deflate balls?”
(3) Turn The Tables By Fighting Back
Robert Kraft put a signature on Belichick’s PR counter-punch on the Tuesday before the Super Bowl. Not only did Kraft’s strong demand for an apology cast doubt on the NFL, it reminded everybody about the league’s massive credibility gap following recent, high-profile scandals for mishandling of real issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and traumatic brain injury. With a few choice words, Kraft devastated the NFL’s investigation, stole the headlines and put Patriots’ critics on the defensive. The lesson Kraft teaches here is clear. The only way to put an end to a media crisis is by refocusing attention onto a bigger problem, in this case the scandal-ridden, ethically challenged, and oft-incompetent NFL.
(4) Always Support The Client Without Reservation
From the perspective of the Patriots, Robert Kraft’s impassioned message reset the team’s emotional barometer. An unambiguous show of support from the organization’s highest authority surely fired up the Patriots, the coaches, the support staff, indeed the entire Patriots fan base, at the most important possible moment. Did Kraft’s heartfelt response help drive the Patriots’ legacy defining win against Seattle? Nobody can say. But the team’s never-say-die spirit was front and center when Kraft was asked about deflated balls after the Super Bowl. “We won that game 45-7, we won today 28-24,” roared Kraft. The lesson? Always speak like a champion when championing the client. The results are contagious.
(5) Ignore The Hate, Focus On What Matters
The most important takeaway from any media-driven PR scandal? Always remember the divide between supporters, haters, and those in the middle. It’s impossible to overcome hate but supporters always will rally. That’s why the largest group—those in the middle who are uncertain about whom to believe—must be targeted. Once the Patriots focused their message and tactics, they were onto immortality. As for the critics? They left Super Bowl 49 with a sour taste in their mouths (and in their headlines.)