23 July 2013

Personal accountability, crisis communication and the Patriots

Is there more to it than rings?
UPDATE: Consensus from the media is that Belichick did a very good job and put a lot of questions to rest.  I doubt the questions will stop, and the organization still has some work to do with internal communications and community relations.  But it seems as though there's been a turning point.

A lot of people think the coach of the New England Patriots has some explaining to do.  He will have his chance this Wednesday at 2pm when he meets the media a couple of days before training camp starts for the New England Patriots.

Many Americans and most American sports fans are aware of the horrific crimes that authorities allege former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez committed earlier this year. However it's not the only challenge to confront this team in the offseason. The so-called "Patriots Way" of obtaining talented players with questionable backgrounds at a discounted price has backfired in the worst possible fashion. So once again we have a crisis communications case study from the world of sports unfolding before us.

So far I think the team's reaction to the crisis has been pretty good, though not perfect.  They took quick and decisive action at an appropriate time, even though they would take a larger "salary cap" hit by doing so, making them a bit less competitive on the field.  They made a (largely symbolic) act of contrition by holding an event where fans could trade in their Aaron Hernandez jerseys for the jerseys of other team members.  Most importantly, the CEO made a public statement that was sincere and candid, acknowledging shortcomings and promising changes.

Where they've fallen short, however, is in the area of transparency. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who everyone knows makes the decisions on personnel, has had nothing to say about the Hernandez case (or about the other player with serious legal troubles, cornerback Alfonso Dennard). The team also came very close to signing another player with an, ahem, gun problem before backing out at the last minute.  They haven't said why. 

So I think it's smart to have the coach talk to the media about this ahead of camp, address the issues now, and eliminate the distraction as much as possible. However, Belichick isn't known for his warmth and grace at the podium or on the field. He's earned a reputation as someone who refuses to share information and stonewalls the media as much as possible. 

I think Belichick needs to strike a careful balance here. He has a lot of audiences to worry about. Players want to see a man who won't sell them out if they get into trouble. Fans want to see wins, but the community at large wants to know the coach understands he made a huge mistake here.  Further, the team could still get sued for any number of reasons. The team wants to draw a line between what they should have known and not just what they shouldn't but what they couldn't.

If the coach does what he's typically done on controversial topics - basically evade the question with a throwaway phrase like "I can only talk about the players that are here" - his reputation will rightfully get crushed.  This one is different. Someone is dead. If the coach begs off like that, the media will immediately go to the victim's family for a reaction. I think the coach will acknowledge the situation and express his sympathies for the victim's family.  I think he may acknowledge that he messed up, and he may echo what his boss said about re-evaluating how they evaluate players,  though I doubt he will get into detail.  I'm not convinced that's enough, but we will see.   Specifically, I think someone will ask him about how he holds himself accountable, and I think Belichick will defer to his boss. 

Finally, I'm very curious to know how the team has handled internal communication - not just to players but to all the employees.  Hernandez may be the player with the worst offense, but he's certainly not the first player on the team with a troubled history of violence. Employees deserve to know that they work in a safe environment, and that the leadership of the team isn't looking the other way with a maniac just because he can catch a football. I'm a bit surprised this hasn't come up.

We will see what happens Wednesday...

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