Sometimes the best thing to do can be nothing. In the public relations sphere, this advice is the hardest to follow, especially in a crisis, but a PR agency must advise on the best reaction or in this case lack thereof, that’s most appropriate for the situation at hand. As Queen Mary tells Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix series The Crown, “To do nothing is the hardest job at all. And it will take every ounce of energy you have.” Doing nothing goes against human instinct because it can feel like defeat or lack of control. In movies, the hero is never the one who waits for things to blow over. Yet the reality is that sometimes to take back control, you just have to do nothing.
An example of this is when the NFL announced in May 2018 that it would fine teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. You’d think a billion-dollar franchise would have enough high-priced PR agencies and staff on retainer that would have convinced them that this was a bad idea. According to the NFL they are open to players protesting, but they must do it by staying in their locker rooms, which is like saying that people can demonstrate as long as they do it by staying in their homes. This message is lacking at best and doesn’t appear to have any input from an experienced PR agency.
Let me be clear – I am firmly on the side of the kneeling players. I believe in their right to freedom of expression and to peacefully protest. The NFL is on the wrong side of history. The players union has stated that they weren’t even consulted.
In a perfect world, the NFL would be as progressive as the NBA and provide unwavering support to their players’ right to freedom of speech and to protest. I appreciate that the NFL and NBA fan bases are different. I also appreciate that with controversies like players suffering from repeated brain injuries swirling around them, the NFL is terrified of losing fans. However, the announcement risked alienating as many fans as it appeased.
In this situation, if the NFL didn’t feel like they had something that would possibly contribute to some sort of greater good, they should have done nothing at all. The best professional advice a reputable PR agency could have given to the NFL in the midst of this controversy would be: hold tight, keep quiet, stay put, … do nothing. And, if they really couldn’t keep quiet, a better approach would have been to give the blandest quotes imaginable until media stopped asking for them, which is hardly unorthodox client advice from a PR agency.
In September last year, the NFL quietly decided that players wouldn’t be fined for the season but maybe in future seasons. This wasn’t terribly surprising since the move by the NFL was likely illegal, the players’ union was challenging the decision, the ACLU and NAACP spoke loudly against it, and Twitter was up in arms. Also, around the time of the decision not to fine for the season, Colin Kaepernick became the face and hero of Nike’s anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. With its May announcement, the NFL gave the story a whole new life, and risked it turning into a greater crisis. The NFL essentially dumped a pail of kerosene on the story and lit a match. Doing nothing would have been the better approach.