Crisis Communications Lessons from an NFL Fumble
By: Lindsay Wyskowski
Any PR pro or communicator knows from experience: crisis communications lessons can be found everywhere—and especially in rapidly evolving, breaking news situations.
Oftentimes we’re living these emergent situations ourselves, so the questions come naturally: what should be said, and what information should be shared? How should the message be shaped to strike the right tone and tenor when details are not fully known? Why do people care about our response and how does that factor into our approach?
That’s exactly what happened during the first Monday Night Football of the new year, as the incident with Damar Hamlin shocked players, fans, broadcasters and the general public. The situation unfolded with very little in the way of official updates for over an hour. This was a live nationally broadcast event, and everyone was unsure how to process what they’d just seen.
Eventually a statement was issued and the game officially suspended, but the crisis communications lessons are clear and relevant for any business or organization.
Timing is Everything
A crisis response cannot wait. Operationally, the on-field response to Damar Hamlin was immediate and on-lock. From a communications standpoint, it took more than an hour from when the incident occurred to release an official statement.
In many situations, an hour is barely any time at all. But during a crisis moment everyone has collectively witnessed nationwide on TV, not to mention in the stadium, every minute counts.
Instead of waiting for an hour to address the public, a preliminary statement could have been issued to acknowledge the immediate steps taken following the incident and concern for Hamlin’s wellbeing—no doubt everyone’s top priority. Then, an additional statement could have been issued to provide an update on the status of the game. By waiting to roll all the available information into one statement, the NFL created more questions and missed the opportunity to control the narrative from the onset.
The lesson: Have a plan in place to immediately respond to a crisis situation, including who needs to be involved in crafting or approving a statement, so no time is wasted and your constituents hear from you first.
People First, Business Second
People are a constant in any crisis situation. No matter what the crisis may be, people are impacted, whether something has happened directly to them or they experience something happening to another person.
Monday’s Bills-Bengals game was highly emotional for everyone involved. The players were shaken by what had happened to Hamlin, and so were the staff, fans, and broadcasters. The stakes of the game were high but were also forgotten as soon as medical intervention became necessary. All anyone really cared about was the health and safety of Hamlin in that moment. For most, continuing the game was not important after such a traumatic event.
The game is not important.
Damar Hamlin’s life is important.
Please be ok. Please.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 3, 2023
In a crisis, humanity matters. People crave information and want to know how they should move forward. People need support in times of uncertainty. They need to hear from organizations or people in charge that their concerns matter. Whether you’re releasing a statement or considering a return to business as usual, consideration for the people involved is a necessity—and can factor into future success.
The lesson: Consider who your audiences are. Be empathetic. Address the facts, but don’t lose heart. How you convey genuine feeling and understanding in a time of crisis sets the tone for how people will see you in the future, and affirms whether people will trust you or put their focus elsewhere.
Plan for the Worst
Every crisis situation is different. Being prepared for the unexpected can make navigating a crisis situation more tolerable, especially when the incident is one you hoped would never happen.
One of the key crisis communications lessons that should emerge for any entity, whether it’s a for-profit company, school, sports team, or other type of organization, is to be prepared. Was there a plan to address the kind of player injury that occurred on Monday? The general public may never know. Still, it’s a prime example of how preparation might have made real-time decisions easier, including issuing a timely statement and determining whether the game should continue.
A sports league with a long history and hundreds of games played each season likely has a plan in place for all kinds of events. There’s a constant need to address facility and fan issues, as well as athlete injuries and acts of God like weather, natural disasters and more. A long history and recurring schedule might make it easier to anticipate the unknown for some incidents.
In the end, the NFL is just like any other organization or business. While it’s true that some industries carry more inherent risk than others, knowing what steps will be taken to address the unknown will serve businesses and their constituents better in the long run.
The lesson: Don’t wait until something terrible happens to prepare for something terrible to happen. Establish a crisis action plan now, with consideration and potential solutions to scenarios you know are possible but hope to never encounter. Know who should be involved in decision making, addressing the public, and determining next steps. Practice what actions people will take to respond and participate in a future crisis. Communicate and collaborate to improve processes over time, implementing real learnings from actual situations.
Identity is an award-winning crisis management public relations firm. Find out more about our crisis management work in our communities and businesses. Get in touch to see how we can help you implement crisis communications lessons to be better prepared for the future.