PR Roundup: New Covid Messaging, 9/11 Branding Blunders, More Racism in the NFL

ampoules with Covid-19 vaccine on a laboratory bench. to fight the coronavirus / sars-cov-2 pandemic.

As we get back into our routines of back to school, watching football and other almost-fall activities, we also take a moment to acknowledge some learnings from this week in the PR industry. The latest COVID-19 vaccine communication, unsavory 9/11 promotions and another NFL diversity blunder caught our attention for this week’s PR Roundup. 

Vax is Back

What happened: This week the United States Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave approval for the newest COVID-19 vaccine. The federal endorsement comes at an appropriate time, as COVID cases have been on the rise in recent months.

Unlike COVID vaccine rollouts of the past several years, this has barely been a blip on the media radar until this week. Still, stakeholders—including medical providers, caregivers and parents—are sure to have questions regarding the latest dosage, so it’s time for the communications industry to get cranking.

This is particularly important as messaging comes in from a variety of sources. Most recently The Washington Post uncovered the platform Threads blocking search terms related to COVID and vaccines. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is bucking the CDC’s advice and urging Florida residents under 65 to forgo the vaccine.

Communication lessons: This makes communicators plans and messaging surrounding the vaccine of utmost importance for their stakeholders. Michelle Baker, partner, Forbes Tate Partners, says public health and healthcare organizations must normalize and ritualize COVID vaccines as part of the annual Fall routine.

“It is especially important to equip and support family caregivers responsible for vaccinating aging parents, loved ones with chronic illness and children [with information]” Baker says. “Workplaces must re-up and promote benefits such as extra time off for vaccinations to help close gaps across the board."

Keeping what matters most to these stakeholders is what should lead messaging, Baker says.

“The factors that will matter most to them include convenience, access and keeping loved ones safe during the holidays and beyond.”


9/11 Brand Blunders

What happened: This week marked the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Towers, which changed not only the landscape of lower Manhattan, but American history, forever.

However, as the years roll on, “Never forget” may be an idiom slowly slipping from public memory.

Some brands seem to be forgetting the true meaning of the day, and instead leverage it for promotional opportunities.

The sports betting platform, DraftKings, ran a promotion offering a bet parlay if three New York teams won on the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The brand has since apologized on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Communication lessons: Hinda Mitchell, president, Inspire PR Group says just because the 9/11 anniversary has now been rebranded as Patriot Day does not make it fair game for annual sales and promotions, as has been co-opted with Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, etc.

“Americans will expect better from the brands they love,” Mitchell says. “There are some things that are simply sacred. Those that should be met with reverence and respect. Sept. 11 is among those, along with Pearl Harbor and other honored anniversaries where there was catastrophic loss of life.”

Mitchell says it’s best to take a beat before promoting anything around a solemn holiday.

“I think the message for brands is a very simple one: do what’s right,” she says. “Take the time to do a gut check on anything you’re going to promote or post. Ask somebody who is not on the marketing team what their perspective is. Consider if it was one of your loved ones who was harmed as a part of that terrible event. How would what you are planning to promote make you feel?”

Mitchell emphasizes that those gut feelings should truly be a guide—which is an important rule of note for any social media post or campaign.

“Ultimately, if there’s really any question at all, that is the sign,” she says. “Err on the side of caution, and do not go forward.”


Another NFL Owner Called Out for Racism

What happened: Jim Trotter, a longtime NFL reporter, went public this week with accusations in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the league. According to ESPN, In the deposition Trotter notes a conversation with a fellow reporter about an exchange he had with Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula, who spoke to the reporter about the NFL's social justice initiatives and Black Lives Matter.

ESPN reported, “The reporter, who was not identified in the lawsuit, told Trotter and approximately 40 other NFL Media coworkers during a Zoom call that Pegula said, "If the Black players don't like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is."”

Pegula, who owns not only the Buffalo Bills, but the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres as well, quickly followed up by issuing a statement only hours after the information went public. The teams posted the statement on social media and their websites. In it, Pegula vehemently denies making the aforementioned comment.

Communication lessons: Yikes. Regardless of it only being an allegation, no one wants to be close to this kind of language or accusation. Just the appearance can severely impact a reputation.

Erick Bauer, founder and principal, The Bauer Group, says while these allegations haven’t yet been proven, the court of public opinion doesn’t always differentiate between claims and facts. Bauer continues to say that it’s the responsibility of the individual or brand to take and communicate immediate action.

“The first step, regardless of culpability, should be to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the allegations,” Bauer says. “It’s important that the league and the team make the public aware of this process and commit to following through when it comes to taking appropriate disciplinary action should the investigation confirm the statements made in the allegations.”

Bauer also reviewed the statement delivered by Pegula, not giving it a high grade.

“Pegula’s response comes off as being defensive, emotional, and impulsive,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a situation that is as contentious as this, you need to respond in a way that demonstrates that you take the issue seriously. A tweet posted without context to the team’s Twitter account is not the ideal delivery platform. In addition, the messaging put forth focuses more on Pegula’s outrage than it does on the underlying issue of racism and the allegations being made by Trotter.”

Bauer encourages those in this position to prepare a formal statement, possibly even a video or livestream as opposed to a tweet.

“This would help to demonstrate empathy, compassion, and also the fact that he takes the allegations extremely seriously,” he says. “The messaging itself didn't completely miss the mark, but again the tone and the medium he chose to use were not ideal.”

Also, not just the team, but the NFL will need to prove itself as it continues to undergo work towards changing its DEI culture.

“They need to prove to the public that they are deeply committed to implementing programs that improve DEI,” he says. “As far as Pegula, I would strongly advise him to release a public statement that acknowledges the situation, condemns racially insensitive behavior, and outlines the team’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal