3 PR Lessons from the Redskins Controversy

Posted on June 20, 2014 
Filed Under General

For communicators following the latest wrinkle regarding the Washington Redskins’ controversial name, it’s your basic PR blocking and tackling.

On Wednesday a federal board cancelled the team’s trademark registration, calling its nickname “disparaging to Native Americans.”

While the ruling puts a bit of a squeeze on the Redskins’ bottom line—the Redskins and the NFL are now limited to pursue legal action against those who use the Redskins’ name and logo on T-shirts, hats and other merchandise—it doesn’t force the team to abandon the name.

Even though the writing seems to be on the wall, Redskins owner Dan Snyder is defiant, saying he would never change the name.

“We’ve seen this story before,” Redskins attorney Bob Raskopf told the New York Daily News. “And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again.”

According to the News, a previous revoking of the team’s trademark in 1992 was locked up in the legal system until 1999 on appeal. A group of Native Americans brought the original suit. But the team and the NFL won the appeal in federal court.

However, unlike 1999, there’s now a groundswell of support to put the Redskins’ name to pasture. For example, a sector of the United Church of Christ voted Saturday to urge its 40,000 members to boycott the Redskins, while half of the U.S. Senate recently wrote letters to the NFL demanding a name change.

Snyder has every right to fight the ruling. But from a PR standpoint, the Redskins are probably on the wrong side of history. The issue also raises some fundamental questions for communicators who have a responsibility for managing their brand’s reputation.

> They don’t call it “evolution” for nothing. Controversial names (or icons) that once caused a collective shrug may now spark consternation, hence the Washington Bullets changing their name to the more benign Washington Wizards in 1995. Demos change. So, too, do consumer perceptions, which PR pros have to pay very careful attention to, lest they start to lose touch with reality.

> The court of public opinion often trumps the court of legal opinion. Synder could emerge victorious in court, but that would not stem the erosion in the Redskins’ brand (or Synder’s personal reputation). In this case, a legal victory would be a hollow one.

> Know when to cut your losses. So long as the protests against the Redskins’ name persist, the communications team will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time defending the namesake and less time getting the brand’s other message out. Such a case also serves to, in some ways, denigrate the PR role. Rather than take a leadership position, PR pros will have to defer reporters’ question to the Redskins’ legal department. There’ll be fewer opportunities to tell a different story—stories that can renew trust in the organization and remove the suspicions that are now surrounding it.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

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