Art Rooney Scores a PR Touchdown

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Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney ll wasted little time posting a statement on the team's official Web site distancing the organization from running back Rashard Mendenhall, who on May 2 had written provocative tweets on his personal Twitter account about Bin Laden and 9/11.

"I have not spoken with Rashard, so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments," Rooney said in the statement, posted on the Steelers site on May 3. "The entire Steelers organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon."

By producing a statement so quickly, Rooney helped ensure that the subsequent media coverage would be focused on Mendenhall as a rogue commenter and not as a representative voice of the team. Just as important as the quick response from the Steelers is the fact that it was credited to Rooney himself, which personalized the message and gave it a news hook. This deft handling of a potential reputational issue doesn't come as a surprise: the Steelers are accustomed to handling player controversies, due in large part to sexual assault allegations against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010.

Debra Jack, EVP of corporate, crisis and CSR practice at Edelman, offers five takeaways PR practitioners  can use to create their own early-response strategy:

  1. Debra Jack

    Be honest about what you know and don’t know. In most crisis and issues situations, all of the facts aren’t immediately available. "Share what you do know as quickly as you can to help avoid being on the defensive. In the case of the Steelers, president Art Rooney specifically said in his statement that he hadn’t spoken with the player; therefore he wasn’t in a position of having to 'explain or even comprehend what he meant,'" says Jack.

  2. Think carefully about attribution. Not every situation will require a statement that is attributed to the head of an organization, whether president, CEO or executive director. "For the Steelers, given the highly sensitive nature of the topic, it was important for the statement to come from Rooney himself and not a member of the PR team or someone else within the organization."

  3. Have social media policies in place, but be prepared for when rules are broken. Many organizations are encouraging employees to participate in social media and act as brand ambassadors. While there are huge upsides to such engagement, the Mendenhall example demonstrates the potential challenges. "Although this was a personal tweet, Mendenhall’s comments quickly became a reputational risk for the Steelers’ brand. Rooney did the right thing by quickly issuing a statement and distancing the organization from Mendenhall’s personal remarks."

  4. Don’t flame the fire unnecessarily. Every situation is unique and requires a different set of communications strategies and tactics. "In major crisis—such as an accident, recall or death—it is necessary to be proactive with a steady stream of information as facts become available and day 2, 3 and 4 stories (and perhaps beyond) are unavoidable. However, in the case of the Steelers, it was wise for the organization to issue a brief statement but not comment further, in an effort to minimize coverage and limit the story’s lifespan. It’s also important to note that Rooney didn’t repeat Mendenhall’s comments and tried to keep a positive tone by focusing on the troops."

  5. Monitor, analyze and, if necessary, react, to the conversation. It will be very important for the Steelers’ organization to conduct comprehensive monitoring of all on- and offline media coverage and social conversation. "Arming themselves with as much information as possible regarding the tone of coverage, stakeholders’ perceptions and opinions, etc., will help them 1) better understand the reputational damage, if any, to the Steelers’ organization, 2) react accordingly, 3) emerge with limited harm and 4) use the learnings to inform their policies and actions moving forward."