One of the oldest adages in crisis management is, “What you did matters less than how you respond.” Regardless of whether Tom Brady is guilty or innocent, this may be one of the worst crisis responses in sports history.
The media’s response to the “deflategate report” should have come as no shock to Brady or his advisors. Beyond just cheating, the report alleges Brady enlisted two low-paid employees to engage in risky rules violations; and, in his response, he has proven more than willing to toss the “little guy” under the bus.
Sports celebrities are a brand, no different than politicians or celebrities, and the “consumers” of Brady’s brand are his fans, most of whom care little about the deflation of footballs. But these, who have far less money and power than New England’s quarterback, do very much care about how Brady treats his colleagues and underlings. He has responded to this report like the boss we all dread.
As a long-time crisis manager, I’d argue Team Brady’s response was a strategic disaster. First, we saw images of him emerging from a private helicopter en route to an A-List event—casting him as aloof and setting him apart from the constituency that makes him marketable. Next, we saw his agent attacking the credibility of investigators and the league and promising an appeal of the disciplinary measures. Rather than remind the fan base why they love Brady, these aggressive tactics cast him as a “holier than thou” celebrity, miles above the consequences, equipped with fame as a weapon.
Here’s how this should have gone. From day one-on, Brady should have bent over backwards to demonstrate humility. He should have reaffirmed his commitment to play by the rules and reminded fans he takes his responsibilities as a role model seriously. He should also have taken full responsibility for the controversy. If written right, this does not require an admission of guilt.
What Brady is up against is a crisis of reputational confidence. If you took a poll today and asked Americans whether they trust Tom Brady and consider him a good role model for their children, you’d find those poll numbers plummeting by the hour, and that has little to do with his guilt or innocence.
So how should Brady maneuver out this? He should wind down the snark, check the ego, and amp up the humility. He should acknowledge the severity of these allegations, even if its conclusions, as he argues, are false. He should make a strong statement to High School players across the country about fair play and the importance of following the rules. I’d have him on the summer football camp circuit, driving that point home – reasserting himself as a role model and reminding kids and their parents why they were Tom Brady fans in the first place.
Again, reputation isn’t always about guilt or innocence; so perhaps the worst defense (ie Brady’s defense) is a legalese-heavy statement or a vow of vindication made at secret arbitration proceedings. Managing a talent’s reputation is about one thing – reminding people why they love that individual in the first place. Humility goes a long way, as does owning up to the reality of a scandal’s appearance, even while you vehemently deny the allegations.
Moving forward, Brady should tell everyone he’s getting “back to the basics”; that his ego took a hit; and that this scandal has reaffirmed his commitment to be a good man, on and off the field. This approach would take America’s attention off “what happened?” and refocus it on “what’s next?”