The National Football League has come under recent scrutiny throughout the media due to its controversial use of replacement referees in NFL games and labor practices. Replacement referees will be used “as much as necessary” this season, according to league executive Ray Anderson. In fact, the NFL has announced that temporary referees will be utilized through the fifth week of the regular season.
Currently, negotiations between the referee’s union and the NFL are ongoing and both sides are unwavering. The basis of the dispute regards the officials' pension plan, which the league is attempting to discontinue in favor of a 401(k). As NFL referees are part-time employees, this move would be financially beneficial to the league as a 401(k) plan is significantly more cost-effective than a pension or defined-benefits package. However, the switch would also leave many current referees without retirement benefits.
The issue has created a substantial public relations challenge for the NFL as the media buzz surrounding the season’s first two weeks of games were nearly overshadowed by the referee strike. Many major outlets such as ESPN, Yahoo! News and The Washington Post have provided extensive coverage of this story, but the NFL's response has been minimal. A recent public communication released by the NFL, issued on September 1, states:
"Commissioner [Roger] Goodell and other NFL staff members concluded three days of talks today with representatives of the NFLRA without reaching an agreement. No further talks are scheduled. We are proceeding with the replacement officials."
This approach may prove problematic for the league going forward. As the season continues, any potentially negative press directed toward the NFL should be addressed. Public responses in the form of press releases and statements from commissioner Roger Goodell will help to keep NFL employees, fans and advertisers aware of the situation and any developments that may occur. Keeping the public informed of any progressions of the negotiations will help the NFL maintain a positive image throughout the season.
An emphasis on transparency should also be considered an important facet of the league's public relations strategy. The NFL already has a high-profile presence within the media and that visibility provides ample opportunities for the league to respond to news reports and the general public. Additionally, should negotiations continue, the league should also issue press releases and statements covering separate topics in order to draw more positive media attention to other aspects unrelated to the replacement referees.
The NFL's usage of social media can further supplement their PR efforts. With an online following of over 10 million users on popular networks such as Facebook and Twitter, these platforms can provide yet another opportunity for the league to report on the negotiations and other relevant news. By addressing their fan base directly, it will create an even stronger focus on transparency and help to enhance support for the NFL brand on the Web.
The following weeks will be a true test of the NFL's PR acumen and will determine whether or not the league can manage the situation properly both behind-the-scenes and within the mainstream media. A more proactive approach to PR and the use of social media may prove to be crucial components of the NFL's reputation and image this season and could also be the keys to establishing the league's PR division as one of the best in the industry.
Kenneth Wisnefski is an online marketing expert and founder and chief executive of WebiMax, an online marketing agency in Mount Laurel, N.J. His firm specializes in search engine optimization, reputation management and social media marketing services. Inc. Magazine recently ranked WebiMax 37 on their 31st annual Inc. 500|5000 for 2012. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @KenWisnefski.