If anyone can sympathize with Mitt Romney’s public relations woes it is the National Football League. One of America’s favorite past times and traditions has become a symbol of corporate greed and intransigence to many fans. Even now a week after a botched call by a temp referee in the Seattle Seahawks/Green Bay Packers game (that was upheld by the league)that caused a fan outcry and backlash, the NFL is dealing with a severely damaged brand and image. Even rapidly reaching an agreement with the referee’s union to stem the fan outage and end the lockout has done nothing to stop the damage.

Americans take their football seriously. From the rabid fans who follow the teams, watch the games, weather the elements to those involved in fantasy football, the NFL is about winning and losing. Fans have felt team owners would do anything to win by opening their checkbooks for the top players to hiring and firing coaches is the teams don’t win. Yet with the referee lockout and subsequent botched calls by the replacement referees showed a different face of the NFL – corporate greed. Fans believe that all the NFL and team owners care about now is money and that could care less about winning and losing and the fans. So how does the NFL fix this public relations nightmare?

Their first attempt was ending the lockout with the referee’s union. Indeed after the botched call on the Seahawks/Packers game, this became essential. Yet the rapidity in which they reached the agreement after for so long saying the sides were so far apart have led many fans to question the NFL and wonder if any agreement would have been reached had there not been the public outcry over the botched call. The botched call still rankles fans too, especially as the NFL upheld the call. It has created an us against them mentality.

Yes, the NFL and its owners are about making money, yet they cannot allow the image to stay that they are about making money even at the expense of the game itself. The first thing that the NFL should do is admit the obvious that it was a botched call and change the result. Many fans are still outraged that the NFL has failed to do the obvious and actually upheld the call.

The NFL and team owners need to listen to the complaints that many fans now have and address them. The NFL is a business and any business responds to their customers – in this case the fans. A first move would be announcing that they will not raise ticket costs despite the agreement with referees.
Next team owners and the NFL who in many cases seem to fans like cold business entities need to engage fans and re-emerge as a living and breathing part of the professional football. They need to be as much the public face of their teams and the league as the players are. Yes, we all know the Arthur Blank’s and Jerry Jones’ of the world but in many cases the owners are faceless and most fans couldn’t recognize them. The owners and league officials need to engage with fans. Walk the sidelines sit in the stands with the average fan. Show fans that you love football as much as they do and it isn’t about money but the love of the game that made them purchase a football team. For years in professional sports, owners were much a brand identity of the team as the players, to show that it isn’t about corporate greed, team owners and even league officials much engage with the fans and again become the face of their teams and the NFL.

Highlighting the NFL’s good works is essential. From team involvement in local community efforts to what the NFL does, a public relations campaign must be show that the NFL cares and gives back must be launched. Greater visibility in the good deeds that are done by the NFL and its teams need to be visible year round to help recreate good will.

Social media is here to stay. More than anything social media was responsible for the fan outrage at the NFL and team owners. The NFL and many teams are failing in fully utilizing social media, let alone understanding its potential. A comprehensive social media campaign is needed to communicate with the fans needs to be developed and launched. Indeed more and more fans are getting their NFL information from social media rather than traditional media. Failure to realize this by the NFL will continue to tarnish its image, as they are not actively countering the negative attacks in the social media world but just centering on those in the traditional media.

The NFL season is far from over. Fans are still engaged but are restless and angry. Yet the NFL and team owners can turn around the public relations debacle by utilizing all of the public relations tools they have available. If making fans happy isn’t enough incentive, how about this? It will make advertisers happy. If fans are unhappy and start tuning out, advertisers will too. And advertisers are watching to see how this plays out. Remember, Major League Baseball never has recovered its prestige it once had or popularity with fans after the lockout season, partially because they never saw the public relations vale of doing so. The question is has the NFL learned from this?

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