Controlling the Message: 3 Lessons from the Janay Rice Interviews

We’ve seen the video and we’ve read countless articles about Ray Rice’s behavior back in February of this year at an Atlantic City casino when he was caught on tape assaulting his fiancee Janay Palmer and then dragging her limp body out of the elevator. We’ve read with fascination the NFL’s multiple reactions to the assault and we’ve watched Janay stand by Ray, marry him and even apologize for her behavior.

Fast forward to now and we get to watch an incredible media plan at play. Opinions aside about domestic abuse, whether the former Baltimore Raven should be reinstated or how abhorrent his behavior was (or is). The way Janay and her PR team are handling the media is a lesson for communicators in crises.

You may or may not agree with Janay’s decision to stand by her husband, but for the sake of this post, let’s say that’s beside the point. Her control of the message over the past week was impeccable. It was neat and clear. It was consistent and had emotion. It was well-timed and facilitated the broader purpose of getting her husband back on the field.

Hiltzik Strategies was among the advisors that screened more than a dozen media outlets before choosing ESPN and The Today Show. Specifically Jemele Hill at ESPN and Matt Lauer at Today. In both interviews she portrayed her relationship as not that different from most couples: we argue but we love each other, we have weakness but we have strengths. There was no real bridging of the message away from assault or domestic abuse because she controlled the pace and tone.

While the interviews took place in early November, their release was timed to go live after an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Rice to the NFL.

She told Lauer: “Everybody makes mistakes. After this whole situation, you would think we lived in a country full of people who never made a mistake.”

For the ESPN interview which took place (not coincidentally) at Ray Rice’s mother’s home in New Rochelle, NY, Janay negotiated the byline, with the video interview positioned “By Janay Rice as told to Jemele Hill.” In the Nov. 5 interview she spoke of how she met Ray, the Baltimore Ravens’ “knee-jerk” reaction to the assault and all the lessons learned since the incident. “I hope when people read this they realize that we’re real. I want people to know how much we love each other and how far we’ve come. Everyone has their own story, this is mine.”

If you find yourself, your brand, or a member of your team in hot water, it wouldn’t hurt to turn to the Janay Rice crisis management playbook:

> Take time to formulate a strong response that is aligned with the end goal: Janay waited seven months to speak to the media.

> Choose your interviewers, not just the media outlet: vet the journalists who are going to interview you and limit the number of interviews you grant.

> Time it well: The Rices waited until the arbitrator ruling to get their message out. It helped that the ruling favored Ray over the NFL, but either way it was the right timing.

While Ray Rice’s behavior back in February is condoned by no one, the narrative is now about rehabilitation and forgiveness.  In many circles, Ray Rice is still vilified. But when the very woman that he assaults is asking the public to forgive and move on, and she does so with grace and compassion, it is difficult to turn away.

— Diane Schwartz

 @dianeschwartz