How the NFL avoided another public trust crisis


Trust is hard to define and even harder to quantify, but, without confidence from your employees, customers, and partners, companies of all sizes will struggle to overcome challenges and succeed.


Veteran reporter Jacob Carpenter is uncovering how business leaders are earning, retaining, and strengthening trust in Fortune’s new newsletter The Trust Factor. Below is this week’s essay, an examination of how the NFL’s process in deciding to cancel a game after a player collapsed on the field quickly became the story.


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Crisis communications experts say the NFL mostly got the Damar Hamlin episode right—and avoided losing even more of the public’s trust

When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin stunningly collapsed on the field during Monday Night Football earlier this month, National Football League executives found themselves thrust into the ultimate crisis situation.


With more than 20 million people watching on live television and questions swirling about Hamlin’s health, NFL executives had to decide whether to continue playing the game—a common practice even after grim injuries—or take the unprecedented step of suspending the late-season showdown.


After just over an hour of discussion and deliberation, a period during which fans and players alike were searching for answers, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell opted to indefinitely postpone the match. The decision ultimately drew widespread praise though some grumbled that the call came later than it should have.


The harrowing episode marked a stark example of how an organization’s immediate response to a crisis can help or hurt trust in an organization, providing some lessons for business executives along the way. While the NFL’s history of poor judgment continues to cloud perceptions of Goodell and his leadership, its handling of Hamlin’s collapse allowed the league to avoid another big blemish on its record, crisis communications experts said.


“The NFL is a large target for criticism, and it’s well-earned, but I don’t think the events of last Monday should be among them,” said Matt Friedman, co-founder of the Detroit-area communications firm Tanner Friedman.


From the start of the emergency, the NFL faced an audience skeptical about its ethics. The league, under Goodell’s leadership, has stumbled through several high-profile controversies: the impact of concussions on players; former running back Ray Rice’s on-camera assault of his fiancée; and the use of race to determine some retired players’ slice of a $1 billion settlement, among others.


In the case of Hamlin’s collapse, the NFL and the Bills were remarkably well-equipped to respond to the 24-year-old’s medical needs. Team trainers and physicians used an automatic external defibrillator and CPR to restore Hamlin’s heartbeat, then whisked him away to a nearby Cincinnati hospital. Hamlin’s doctors have not released a formal cause of Hamlin’s acute medical event, but medical experts have widely speculated that he experienced commotio cordis, an acute cardiac event that typically follows impact to the chest.


With Hamlin en route to the hospital, attention then turned back to the game and whether it would resume.


According to ESPN reporter Don Van Natta, who interviewed numerous sources involved in discussions about the decision, players, coaches, and the players’ union leadership were adamant about postponing the contest. Meanwhile, Goodell and some of his top brass—including executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who was in New York, and the chief football administrator Dawn Aponte, the league’s primary contact on the ground—coordinated by phone.


For about an hour, information was at a premium. The league didn’t comment on Hamlin’s condition or the status of the game, other than to say it was temporarily suspended. In the fog of uncertainty, ESPN lead Monday Night Football announcer Joe Buck told viewers that the league planned to restart the game after a brief warmup period, prompting widespread condemnation on social media. League officials later disputed that they decided at any point to resume action, while ESPN officials maintain that an NFL representative told them about a plan to keep playing.


In the hour-long gap between Hamlin’s collapse and the NFL’s decision, league officials received a barrage of social media criticism for not acting sooner. Finally, the NFL called the game, much to the relief of everyone involved.


Some crisis communications experts have since characterized the league’s actions as appropriately swift, noting the complex nature of the situation.


“We (were) a captive audience watching this in real-time, and it feels like a long time, but in reality a lot of decisions were happening behind the scenes in just one traumatic hour,” Julie Andreeff Jensen, co-CEO of the strategic advisory firm Jasper Advisors and a former communications executive for the then-Washington Football Team, told PR Week.


Friedman, who watched the Hamlin episode live and reviewed Van Natta’s reporting, said the NFL followed some key tenets of the crisis communications playbook. He noted that the league’s highest-ranking officials all connected immediately, several stakeholders were able to offer input on the decision, and a final call was clearly communicated to the public.


“I saw some signs of a process at work, even if to the naked eye it looked much more chaotic,” Friedman said.


Other crisis managers, however, suggested the NFL could have moved faster in light of the emotions swirling around the situation. Melissa Agnes, founder and CEO of the Crisis Ready Institute, a national consulting and training firm, questioned whether the league had adequately prepared for a rare but predictable event like Hamlin’s collapse.


“In crisis management, success requires the right actions to be taken to actually manage the situation, the right communications coming out simultaneously with those actions, and it all needs to happen in the right timeline,” Agnes said. “Generally speaking, if you’re under the hour mark, that’s a good place. In this situation, where every second feels like a minute, the timeline is different and the impact of that timeline is different.”


Agnes said organizations can prepare for crisis events by assembling a readiness plan, placing people with strong communications and decision-making skill sets in positions to respond to emergencies, and consistently training staff on working within an established response framework.


“We want all of our clients to be in a position where they come out a crisis with even more trust built up,” Agnes said. “That means you did right by the people you served when it mattered most—and that’s very hard to do when you don’t have that right mindset.”

Jacob Carpenter
More of Fortune‘s coverage on Hamlin:


Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest may trigger PTSD in players and staff, with NFL bosses urged to keep ‘vigilant’ eye on ‘traumatized’ stars


Blaming Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on the COVID vaccine is ‘wildly and irresponsibly speculative,’ says expert


Donations to Damar Hamlin’s toy drive now top $6 million


What is the link between cardiac arrest and excessive stress from sports? Experts weigh in

Categories: Sports

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