COMING TO GRIPS WITH PUBLIC RELATIONS NIGHTMARES
What does New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft have in common with the Australian disc jockeys who punked the nurses attending to Duchess Kate Middleton?
Well, both are in the news being accused of things they probably had very little to do with and both, IMHO, have not handled the situation very well.
Could better PR or crisis management helped in these situations?
Let’s examine both cases.
In the Kraft case, which is apparently headed to the courtroom, Kraft’s companies and several other Gillette Stadium related defendants are accused of contributing to the 2008 death of a teenager and her 20 year-old friend who were illegally drinking in the stadium parking lot and fatally crashed their car after they were rousted by security. Kraft’s lawyers, not surprisingly, have responded by blaming the victims and labeling them criminal trespassers, underage drinkers, and essentially recidivist delinquents. Not a very effective way to successfully engender empathy.
Kraft himself has been mostly silent on the case, leaving it to his mouthpieces to speak for him. Gillette Stadium did not provide booze tothe girls and they had no tickets to the event taking place (a country music festival). It’s being treated as a nuisance lawsuit and maybe it is.
Or maybe not. The trespassing charge doesn’t seem to stand up. While it’s apparently true the girls had no tickets to the event, they allegedly paid $20 to gain entry to the parking lot where pre-concert tailgating was in full swing. It’s a little hard to claim trespassing after you happily take someone’s money in exchange allowing them on your property.
And while it’s true the girls supplied their own alcohol, Gillette management obviously enabled patrons to publicly drink without much fear of being hassled or carded. It wasn’t until the concert started, apparently, that security suddenly decided those without tickets had no right to be there and ran off the drunken, urinating and puking revelers, seemingly without much concern about what might happen after they were off Gillette grounds.
Anyone who has attended a Patriots game or other event at Gillette Stadium knows the level of public drunkenness is out of control. Recently, some draconian but probably necessary steps have been taken to crack down on the amount of drinking there but doesn’t that imply a fear of liability that probably wasn’t in force back in 2008?
All this will likely be worked out in the courtroom or in a settlement that we won’t be privy to.
Meanwhile, in jolly old England, a hospital nurse who answered a crank phone call from two Australian disc jockeys posing as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, committed suicide purportedly as a result of the humiliation suffered after the joke went public. The incident cost the jockeys their jobs and there is even talk of criminal prosecution of the pair as well as the station and its owners.
Could strategic PR or a crisis communication plan have helped in either of these situations? The radio station’s owners apparently think so as it hired a firm that supposedly specializes in such things (I didn’t get a call). But, as is typical, it engaged the firm well after the crisis had unfolded and public opinion had been formed. That probably explains why the jockeys hit the airwaves a full three or four days after the incident to blubber on TV and offer up their apologies. By that time, many people thought the pair were crying crocodile tears - maybe coached to do so by their new handlers. Several days later, the station said it was “donating” a pile of money to the woman’s family. Good, but the gesture at this point looks insincere and even an admission of liability, some say.
Kraft, I think, mostly keeps his own counsel and it’s unlikely the attorneys will let him say anything on the record or otherwise about the case, and that’s unfortunate.
In both instances a faster response may have aided the situation. In today’s media market, you cannot wait days or weeks to respond to a crisis because the news cycles - and thus public opinion - churns hourly or even by the minute. In the case of the two disc jockeys, their apologies should have been instant, the monetary offers of aid and assistance should have been paired with the apologies. Furthermore, there should have been some realistic acknowledgement that one can never truly know why anyone takes their own life. Perhaps the boneheaded joke was a catalyst, perhaps it wasn’t. We’ll never really know. But the media nevertheless made the connection and imprinted it on the public consciousness before the authorities did - in fact, investigators have yet to link the incidents - and before anyone from the radio station uttered a word.
Despite the terrible tragedy, the jockeys and the radio station are not responsible for the woman’s suicide. But by the time they got around to pleading their case, it was too late, at least in the courtroom of public opinion. A shock joke had killed a woman. End of story.
The Kraft situation is more complex. Public opinion is probably on his side already. After all, what did he have to do with kids who made bad choices and paid the ultimate price? And what about the responsibility of the parents who are bringing the legal action? Yet, I still think Kraft might have avoided the lawsuit and the ensuing media focus altogether had he executed a well developed crisis plan the moment after the tragedy occurred. Furthermore, he should be publicizing all the efforts Gillette Stadium goes through to discourage excessive drinking and rowdy behavior - and there are plenty of examples, I’m told.
Instead, though he may be no more responsible for someone’s death that those Australian jokers, the public and the courts might just be ready to make an example. Lines are being drawn and judges and jurors could determine that it's time to send a firm message about corporate accountability for public drinking at sporting events and concerts and its sometimes awful consequences. There was another incident just this week after the Pats game in which an alleged drunk driver ran over a pedestrian and tried to drive away. The public wants answers, is fed up with the status quo, and is looking to blame and probably hang somebody. It just may be Mr. Kraft who will be at the business end of that ire.