Tom Brady’s off-field defense team let the NFL get to the quarterback — damaging a great brand and reputation, while much of the damage could have been prevented. Deflategate was an incident more akin to a speeding ticket, but turned into a high-speed chase with Brady as the central target. As a crisis management practitioner for more than 25 years, I have several observations on the performance of Brady’s crisis team.
First, let’s examine the pieces of “evidence” that began the crisis, starting with Brady’s press conference on Jan 22. When asked about possible doctoring of the game balls, Brady was not his usual sure-footed self and opened the door to his current predicament by giving the definitive, inflexible statement, “I would never do anything to break the rules. I respect the league.”
That was mistake number one. Making a definite statement when Brady and the Patriots knew there would be further investigation by the NFL that could impeach his statement was the first misstep.
In the bad to worse category, team owner Robert Kraft then put out a statement riled with indignation, followed by yet another demand at the Super Bowl for the NFL to apologize to him, Brady, and the Patriots organization.
When the Wells report was released on May 6, Brady’s agent attacked attorney Ted Wells, his ties to the NFL, and the basis of the entire report. This was crisis management malpractice as Brady and the Patriots had no game plan to protect the brand and reputation of Tom Brady.
So, what could the Patriots and Brady’s advisers have done differently?
Rule 1. Control the conversation and call the right play.
Back in January, Brady’s advisers decided to host a press conference to get ahead of the conversation. It was a strategic move on their part in an effort to control the conversation. Over the course of a few different press conferences before the Super Bowl, they put coach Bill Belichick and Brady on the stand in front of the press to present their internal study findings and to answer questions.
During a press conference on Jan. 24, Belichick said, “I thought this was an important issue so we addressed it.” He goes on to say, “this is the end of this subject for me for a long time.” That was the signal the Patriots were attempting to control the conversation by ending it.
But they called the wrong play and it cost them. At that time, the press conference was the wrong forum to control the conversation. Instead of the press conference, Brady’s team should have issued a carefully worded statement that said something along the lines of “I’ve been preparing game balls a certain way for years, and if I did anything wrong, I am certainly sorry and will seek guidance from the league going forward.” A bit of a hedge from Brady would have gone a long way here in framing his public defense.
Rule 2. Damage control.
Brady’s team should have better set the table for future conversation and appearance of cooperation back on Jan 22. But Brady and the Patriots waited until the report was published on May 6, and then attacked the findings. They were too late to the public conversation.
It got even worse as Brady’s agent waited a full day before commenting, allowing the rest of the established media and online bloggers to frame the Wells report for the public. Then Brady’s agent, Don Yee, attached the motives and methodology of Ted Wells, implying that the report’s findings were somehow tainted by Wells’ business relationship with the NFL. Yee clearly forgot that Roger Goodell was judge, jury, and executioner. And he apparently did not count on Wells answering his criticism, another miscalculation.
The Brady/Patriots strategy for months was “run out the clock.” Knowing the league was within a month of publishing their findings, the internal deliberations in Brady’s camp should have been focused on what possible actions, public and private, Brady could have taken in order to avoid a severe punishment and what punishment could they accept. They needed to be asking themselves, “How can we limit the damage to Brady, Inc. and his international brand?” That should have been the most important objective for Brady’s defense team.
With the NFL needing to restore order post Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, Brady actually became a bigger target for the NFL no matter what the NFL says publicly. Given his larger-than-life stature, the stakes were higher than it being just about another quarterback. But Brady’s defense team perhaps thought they would get a pass because it was Tom Brady – another mistake in judgment.
Brady’s defense should not have been just about his job as the quarterback for the Patriots, despite the fervent backing of Patriots Nation. This was really about Brady’s legacy post-football, not whether he would be suspended for one or more games next season. The Wells report and the resulting media response is not kind to Brady’s present or future.
Rule 3. Get everyone in the hud dle.
Brady is the face of the Patriots, yet his public defense has been uncoordinated, with the Patriots not harnessing their own brand power to defend their number one star. Separate statements by Kraft, a lack of public comment from Belichick since his Mona Lisa defense, and a ridiculous statement from teammate Rob Gronkowski last week was the best they could do.
Why didn’t the Patriots organization follow the crisis playbook of other corporations? In the spirit of Rule 1 — control the conversation — perhaps they could have launched a microsite in late January to feature a question-and-answer section, and comments from Kraft, Belichick, and teammates on Brady’s character as well as other supporting material to bolster the case that Brady’s actions were not purposeful. That is one way they could have better coordinated the message and controlled the conversation. For every untruth that appeared on the sports pages or online blogs, Brady’s defense team should have aggressively been correcting the public record.
Context was missing in this conversation as well as a primer on the arcane ritual of preparing game footballs. The Patriots could have included commentary on that subject from a former quarterback like Scott Zolak, as he outlined in specific detail in Jackie MacMullan’s recent ESPN column. That would have put perspective and context on the situation, something that was never part of the crisis narrative. Brady and the Patriots needed to align messaging and control the conversation from early on, but they did not.
Rule 4. Play smart.
Brady’s agent attacked the Wells report with the fury of a criminal defense attorney. This was not a “rule of evidence” legal process and not apparent that Brady was under any restrictions in commenting publicly.
Brady’s team could have begun a public dialogue and defense on their terms. Instead, they waited for the shoe (or football) to drop on them when there was no time left on the clock. On day two of the release of the Wells report (a day late), Brady’s agent attempted to steer the media to footnotes in the 246-page report to attempt to highlight the points favorable to Brady’s defense. It was all over at that point as reasonable doubt was a reasonable defense in January, but an unreasonable strategy on May 6.
Rule 5. Pick your fights.
The supposed damning “evidence” in the Wells report was that Brady did not voluntarily turn over his personal cellphone to NFL investigators. If you read the full Wells report, the two equipment personnel turned over their business phones. Turning over one’s business phones is reasonable and expected as there is no expectation of privacy on a business phone.
The early media reports post-May 6 stated that NFL asked for Brady’s personal phone, the phone he uses to text his wife, his family, and his kids. The NFL, without any court order, but under their own rules of investigations, was supposedly asking the league’s most high-profile player, married to a successful international supermodel, to turn over his personal phone. This is not just anyone’s cellphone.
It turns out this wasn’t the case, but, had Wells demanded possession of Brady’s personal cellphone, that’s the one fight Brady’s team could have publicly fought and won. Americans value their right to privacy and are deeply suspicious of any proceeding, government or otherwise, that would invade an individual’s privacy.
Brady’s agent’s vehement objection on the NFL gaining access to Brady’s phone gave an erroneous impression on what the NFL demanded. In a Boston Globe story Wednesday, Wells punched back, stating, “I was willing not to take possession of the phone.” He goes on to say, “I said, ‘I don’t want to see any private information. You keep the phone . . . and give me documents that are responsive to this investigation, and I will take your word that you have given me what’s responsive.’ And they still refused.”
Knowing that information on the inside, Brady’s camp should have never raised the issue of cellphone access. They picked a fight that was a loser from the outset.
Brady may have made a mistake, albeit a minor one. However, Brady’s team of advisers presented no context and explanation for that relatively minor mistake until it was too late to correct the public record and shape the media conversation. The penalty did not fit the crime, but it did fit the storyline.
Joe Baerlein is president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications.