The Far Reaching Impact of Miscalculated Reputation Management and the Potential Fallout
By now we have all heard about, watched, and discussed Rush Limbaugh's involvement as a potential minority owner with a group seeking to buy the St. Louis Rams and Thursday's decision by that group to move forward without him.
As a sports and entertainment public relations professional, I am often asked to weigh in on all things crisis and controversial. Rather than engaging in the overblown shouting match between the dozens of pundits and blowhards out there with an opinion and a microphone, when I do weigh in on these types of issues, my comments tend to focus on the issue at hand, accountability, and how the individual or team in question should maneuver through the situation to best manage, enhance or restore their reputation.
To that end, I will continue along that path and keep the focus of this article on how Rush Limbaugh's body of work over the years ultimately led to his being ousted from the ownership group that was bidding on one of the NFL's worst franchises. We can save the debate on whether or not Rush Limbaugh has the right to, deserves to, or should be allowed to, be a part of a potential ownership group seeking to buy an NFL franchise for later.
The bottom-line here is Rush Limbaugh and his own body of work throughout the years cost him this opportunity – not conservatism, not the excuses or whining he's firing off over the airwaves, not the liberal media.
It's simple, and here are four lessons to be learned.
1. If you are an extremely polarizing figure, you must expect ramifications for your actions.
Like him or not, to say Rush Limbaugh is a lightning rod of controversy and a polarizing figure on issues of race in sports, politics and society in general, is an understatement. His belief that he can say, believe, and make a career marginalizing African American, athletes and culture, and then expect to be welcomed into a business where more than 75 percent of the players are African American, is clearly not rational thinking. Players such as the New York Giants’ Mathias Kiwanuka and others have stated they would not play – or have to seriously consider playing – for an ownership group that included Limbaugh. NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has encouraged players to stand up and be vocal about this situation, the same way any good union head would encourage his constituency to stand up for what's right and what’s in the best interests of the collective.
On the flip side, I'm sure some of the owners, players, and those affiliated with the NFL probably agree with Limbaugh's conservative rhetoric. But they are not using a media platform as big as Limbaugh’s to make millions off rhetoric that is divisive and borderline hateful at times. You cannot be the individual Limbaugh has been and expect to be accepted into the most elite of clubs (i.e., NFL owners). Owners know the most important thing for their franchises is to manage and protect their reputations and protect their bottom-line interests.
The NFL is an iconic brand that protects its reputation first and foremost, as it should. Under the watchful eye of Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL has served notice that bad behavior will not be tolerated. It is bad for business. Period. “Players behaving badly” is quickly becoming a thing of the past and if you want to maintain (or regain) the privilege of playing in the NFL, you cannot be a divisive force in the locker room, the front office or off the field. So to welcome a disruptive and divisive force like Limbaugh would go against the grain as it relates to the positive direction the League is heading.
2. You must own your actions and words, not blame others (in this case "the liberal left"), and begin working toward reconciliation with those you've offended in an honest and open (read: transparent) manner.
Limbaugh's recent statement on his radio show is ridiculous and shows no accountability.
"This is not about the NFL. It's not about the St. Louis Rams. It's not about me. This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country, wherever you find them, in the media, the Democrat Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative." He goes on to say, "This is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we are going to have."
Really? News flash, Mr. Limbaugh. It IS about you.
If my memory serves me correctly, didn't George W. Bush own the Texas Rangers? And I'm sure there are many others in prominent ownership positions who are prominent and conservative. However, these individuals (with the exception perhaps of the late Marge Schott) were not the polarizing lightning rods Limbaugh has built his Godzilla-size career on.
As for reconciliation with those you've offended, one would question the true authenticity of your actions should you even think about moving down this path.
3. What you say and do today will impact what you want to do tomorrow, especially in business.
Clearly, Dave Checketts, owner of the St. Louis Blues and leader of the ownership group bidding for the franchise, made a decision that was in the best interests of their business pursuit. That decision was to drop Limbaugh from its ranks. From a professional standpoint, it was the best decision to make. Limbaugh is not good for their business and the statement issued from Checketts clearly illustrates that (with utmost diplomacy).
"It has become clear that his (Limbaugh's) involvement in our group has become a complication and a distraction to our intentions; endangering our bid to keep the team in St. Louis. As such, we have decided to move forward without him and hope it will eventually lead us to a successful conclusion."
Checketts and Co. made the decision because they knew NFL owners would not vote him them in if they included Limbaugh in their group. Limbaugh is trying to turn this into an attack on political conservatism. It is not. The fact is, people do not want a bigot as an owner.
4. Perception is reality, and how you handle the fallout from this situation will determine your fate in the court of public opinion going forward.
America is a place where freedom of expression is paramount. However, just like athletes, politicians, celebrities, talk show hosts (often times one and the same), and anyone in the public eye, we are all accountable for our words and actions.
Sounding off on a radio show, blaming everyone else, whining and crying, etc., will not serve you well. This reaction is no different than past NFL bad boy Terrell Owens pointing the finger at everyone else or Brandon Marshall's bad behavior during training camp for which his own team suspended him for during the preseason. Tantrums and tirades (although great TV) will get you nowhere. Look at Owens and Marshall now. They are working hard, saying and trying to do the right things, even when things do not go as planned. Why? Because they understand now the impact their actions and reactions have on their long-term future. They are working to change the perception the media and society have of them. They "get it" now.
The perception among many is that this conservative radio talk show host is a bigot. Limbaugh is viewed as a racially insensitive, polarizing, divisive force whose occupational practice is to make incendiary comments, which unfortunately represents a very ugly part of our history.
You can have whatever political beliefs you chose, you can be as polarizing as you want, but do not cry foul when it comes back to haunt you.
For all those who think just because you have reached elite status you can say and do whatever you want, learn from this. Do not miss the lesson.
About Wes Mallette
As the Co-Founder and CEO of the Los Angeles, California based Comment Communications (formerly known as Elevation Sports & Entertainment) one of my responsibilities is to lead my company's crisis response strategy for our clients when they find themselves in adverse situations with their reputation and image on the line. At Comment, we focus on strategic public relations, media training, image consulting, crisis communication and issues management, and helping athletes build their post-athletic careers in the broadcast booth. By leveraging our expertise and deep relationships with the media, we work with our clients to help tell their stories and position the athletes and companies they represent in a way that will allow them to maneuver successfully through today's complex traditional and social media environment.