Skating on Thin Ice: PR Tactics Following the NHL Lockout

, Posted on Feb 15


As both a PR professional and an avid hockey fan, it has been simultaneously fascinating and frustrating to watch the NHL lockout unfold. While the very public nature and the length of the negotiations angered fans, it’s been intriguing from a professional standpoint to watch the PR battle between the two sides. Now that the deal is done, however, the league’s focus has shifted toward winning back fans that were put off by the lockout. Here’s a breakdown of steps taken at several levels to repair the damage done and the lessons we can learn from these efforts.

Lesson 1: A bad apology can be worse than no apology at all

Once a tentative agreement was announced, the apologies began pouring in. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman issued a public apology, and the league took out full-page ads in newspapers in several markets apologizing again. Similarly, individual team owners began issuing statements of their own to their respective fan bases.

Unfortunately, the apologies often lacked sincerity and showed little remorse. Take this message, for example, from Mike and Marian Ilitch, owners of the Detroit Red Wings:

“…We are sorry for the delay in starting the season and the unfortunate public nature of the negotiations. Thankfully, with this new deal, we will be assured of a settled labor environment for many years to come…”

The apology seems to be an afterthought to more talks about the labor negotiations, almost as if the organization needed to justify the work stoppage.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did a much better job with their apology, keeping it about the fans and the organization’s commitment to icing a winning team.

We offer our apology. There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months…We want to thank you for your patience and your loyalty to the Penguins. We hope to repay it many times over. Our commitment to winning the Stanley Cup and our commitment to you has not changed.”

The Red Wings’ apology comes across as more of a formality. The Penguins don’t offer any excuses. Instead, they just thank their fan base for their loyalty throughout the process and look ahead to winning.

Lesson 2: All politics are local

The league recognized that the real key to getting fans back to the game was generating interest at home, and many NHL teams have done a tremendous job offering promotions, contests and giveaways to draw fans back to the rink.

For now, these marketing initiatives seem to be working. I’m curious to see how these efforts play out over the long run, though. If attendance numbers stay high, will teams scale back their offers? Similarly, when teams start to fall out of contention, will fans begin to lose interest, and how will the owners respond?

The key here is to maintain consistency. If teams want to earn back their fans’ trust, the owners around the league need to show fans they are willing to work for it. Altering deals or cutting back on promotional offers because attendance is high, or because a team is out of contention, might lead fans to question the sincerity of the gesture.

Lesson 3: Actions speak louder than words

Players for the Columbus Blue Jackets donned matching jerseys during warm-ups for their home opener that read “Thank You Fans” with the number “1” as a message of gratitude to fans who stayed loyal during the lockout. The team then raffled off the jerseys to attendees during the game.

While many apologies from around the league came off as insincere, this one turned out to be well received by Blue Jackets fans. Why? Because the team wasn’t focused on telling fans they were sorry and how they intend to win back their support. Instead, the organization’s gesture showed fans how much they appreciate their devotion. It wasn’t elaborate, but it went a long way.

Now that the season is underway, we wait to see how the league reacts to initially positive attendance figures. Will strong ticket sales continue? Will owners maintain their promotions? Will teams that made smarter, more consistent moves be rewarded? Right now, we can only begin to speculate about the long-term impact of these efforts. Regardless, as PR professionals, there are lessons here that we can all take from the rink to our own offices, including the dangers of insincere apologies, the importance of consistent messaging and the value of actions over words.

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