Ben DiPietro, The Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance Journal, April 4, 2016

Crisis of the Week this week jumps into the fight between the National Football League and the New York Times, looking at how the NFL responded to a story alleging the league under-counted the number of players who had suffered concussions.

The NFL issued a statement calling the story false, and saying the league had spoken with journalists working on the story to explain to them why their premise was incorrect. The league then ran a series of ads refuting the story—even putting those ads on the Times website, sometimes with the ad running inside the story the league was contesting. This week it had attorneys send a letter to the newspaper demanding a retraction, which the newspaper refused to provide.

Using only the comments made by the NFL, the experts evaluated how well the league has done so far in defending itself, and spell out how it should proceed. In addition to breaking down the actual comments, analyze the methods the league took to disseminate its message and explain whether they were effective or not, and why.

Davia Temin, CEO, Temin and Co.: “If the NFL would not go on the offense in its own defense, who would? Its response to the NYT is testosterone-driven, using every play in the reputation defense playbook and originating a few more. It also ups the ante, and may not help them in the long run.

“The NFL’s goal, in the face of such a devastating take down by the Times, had to be not only to refute the allegations point-by-point but to cast doubt on the entire article, its writers and the publication’s motives. It did this semi-successfully in its rebuttal, but went too far, allowing the Times to refute its refutation. Not good to wage all-out combat. But its immediate placement of banner ads touting what it is doing to keep players safe–on the very pages containing the negative story–was brilliant. Clearly the NFL was prepared for the story, and deployed every response possible in traditional and social media; some were on-point, others overblown.

“The real mistake? A truism in my business of crisis management is to never repeat a negative allegation. Instead counter with a positive truth. Every time you repeat a negative, people believe it a little more. So, the more times the NFL said in its statements that it is not affiliated in any way with the tobacco industry, the more the public believes it is. Instead, it should have said: ‘This is a totally untrue allegation: our research and communications are completely independent of any other organization. We have never affiliated with anyone like that, ever.’ And that had better be the truth.”

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