A Lesson in Crisis Communications

2023 got off to a frightening beginning for football fans, with Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest dominating everybody’s news feed. The Buffalo Bills safety collapsed in the middle of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Hamlin’s health occupied all our minds for the following days. High praise should be given to the first responders and medical teams responsible for Hamlin’s recovery.

However, this is a blog about public relations, so I want to focus on the NFL’s crisis response involving this horrible incident.

Now, I write this fully aware that the NFL is no stranger to controversy regarding its crisis response efforts. The organization has previously fumbled its public communications while addressing incidents, such as the concussion debate and domestic violence among NFL players. Instead of being proactive and having a crisis communications plan, the organization took its sweet time with its communications, risking the audience’s trust and positioning itself as having poor communicators.

This time, there are positives to examine about the NFL’s response to the traumatic hour that brought the entire football world together.

Sure, there was some online backlash toward the NFL while spectators awaited a decision about the game.

And it’s understandable. The most critical crisis tactic that an organization can practice is addressing the problem ASAP. There is something that public relations experts refer to as “the golden hour,” a 60-minute window for an organization’s response that can determine success or failure.

However, the NFL exercised great decision-making and crisis management at this time. I have two main reasons to support this: expressing genuine concern for players and consistent messaging.

We can all agree that the NFL’s decision to postpone the Bills vs. Bengals game indefinitely was the best decision that could have come out of the situation, as continuing the game would have led to accusations of inhumanely placing business over players’ safety. Concern for its players came first above all else, and that demonstrated great leadership on the NFL’s front. League officials were aware that the rescheduling of the game was at the back of everyone’s minds, and Hamlin’s recovery was front and center.

Additionally, while some viewed the timing of the decision unfavorably, there are variables to consider for this situation, including collaborative communications between the NFL, the Bills, and the Bengals’ communication teams. It’s okay to internally overcommunicate if you are gathering all the information to influence and communicate your decision, so long as you have a reasonable timetable for sharing said information with the public.

So, let’s take a quick review of what we have learned from this lesson:

  1. Express empathy: Great messaging while responding to a crisis involves understanding your audience’s concerns. It demonstrates great compassion and leadership.
  2. Timing is essential, but so is accuracy: Yes, a quick response would be preferable for the audience (remember – golden hour), but staying aware of the content going out is equally as important.
  3. Have a readiness plan: Uncertainty is unavoidable, and there is plenty of uncertainty to consider when it comes to crisis management. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm every possibility, run scenarios that address them, and have an actionable plan prepared.

The NFL and all involved parties demonstrated professionalism, empathy, and clarity, and that’s the best we can expect regarding crisis communications.