SBJ/April 25-May 1, 2016 /Leagues and Governing Bodies

Lockhart quickly makes mark as NFL goes on PR offensive

It hasn’t taken long to see the impact Joe Lockhart is having at the NFL in public relations.

The league’s new communications chief joined the league in January. What’s followed has been a sharp change from the at times softer, nearly dismissive, approach the league has employed on matters in the past to a tougher, more muscular response unit.

Most notable has been the league threatening to sue and issuing lengthy rebuttals to The New York Times over its controversial story last month comparing the NFL to the tobacco industry. But the league is striking out in other ways, as well. Owners for example recently forcefully challenged public perceptions of the league’s response to concussions. That too happened since the hiring of Lockhart, who was the spokesman for President Clinton during the president’s 1998 impeachment.

“I can tell you that any time someone writes something this wrong,” Lockhart said of The New York Times story in particular, “they can expect a strong response from us. I don’t know any other way to do it.” Asked if owners were calling him about that story, he replied, “If you put yourself in a position of someone who has invested in the NFL … and they are compared to Big Tobacco, if your organization was, or your brother-in-law, or anybody’s business is compared to that, you are damn right they are going to be upset. The organization feels strongly about fighting back.”

“It used to be a small number of news outlets determined the news for everybody. Now, it’s thousands, tens of thousands. You can’t sit back and wait for people to cover you.”
— JOE LOCKHART
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
That hasn’t always been the case for the NFL — at least, not in any way conveyed publicly. In the past, when stories the NFL perceived as erroneous appeared about the league, the response was often muted. The stories coming out of the league’s annual filing of its tax return, for example, would typically end up focusing on the NFL’s standing as a tax-exempt organization, suggesting that the NFL did not pay taxes. While the league office was structured as a nonprofit trade association, NFL teams were and are taxed. Rather than continue to fight the misperception, the league ultimately moved to change its tax status, essentially putting an end to the erroneous stories that way.

In 2014, during the league’s player-conduct scandals, the NFL seemed reluctant — almost embarrassed — to assert its position. Commissioner Roger Goodell spent weeks before making a public appearance, and the league blandly withstood furious media attacks. Insiders within the NFL were livid over an Associated Press report that the Ray Rice video had been sent to the league, contrary to the league’s official position. While the NFL denied the report and commissioned a review, it ignored stronger pleas within the office to sue the AP.

Until late last year, NFL communications were run by the affable Paul Hicks, a former PR agency executive who came onboard shortly before the lockout of 2011. Well-liked internally, Hicks, who left the league to go work for the company Lockhart founded, Glover Park Group, had a strong strategic eye but did not have crisis PR experience.

Lockhart himself is not a slick, shoot-from-the-hip type despite the most recent salvos. Those who knew Lockhart from his White House days say he was not known for firing cannons and aggrandizing reporters.

“I never saw him as being combative,” said Llewellyn King, a long-term Washington reporter, editor and publisher who now runs the White House Chronicle. “He was polite, gentle, not blazing guns.”

Indeed, Lockhart emphasizes that response to The New York Times’ story is not part of some masterly crafted PR strategy cooked up at 345 Park Ave. with the commissioner and other top executives to create an in-your-face communications unit.

“I have only been there since January,” he said, sipping coffee recently in a Starbucks near NFL headquarters — though he has made a few internal changes to his staff of roughly a half-dozen and plans to hire an extra top PR person in the coming months.

Nevertheless, Lockhart arrives not just with his impressive political résumé, but also at a time of a swiftly evolving media landscape. Rapid changes in how news is distributed, whether through social media or rights holders themselves, is pushing entities like the NFL to adopt a more proactive approach. Previously, the league could get its message out through a handful of large news organizations. Those days are now consigned to the ranks of typewriters and leather helmets.

“The NFL reaction to The New York Times is an … indication of a changing media strategy and insight into things to come,” said Andrew Bloch, founder and group managing director of Frank PR, a U.K.-based communications agency. “The NFL now seems determined to protect their brand and aggressively fight stories that don’t reflect well on the league, whereas previously, they have restrained from publicly lashing out at media outlets, at least not with the public grandstanding it employed with The Times’ story.”

In many ways, Lockhart and The New York Times response is also yet one more indication of how large the NFL, and sports, has become.

Ten years ago, when Michael O’Keefe reported exclusive steroid stories about MLB for the New York Daily News, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig often called on the weekend to complain about a story, the reporter recalled. That kind of informal approach is hard to imagine today as leagues like MLB and the NFL are major financial and cultural powerhouses and need more than a scattershot few calls to confront major news developments.

“It used to be a small number of news outlets determined the news for everybody. Now, it’s thousands, tens of thousands,” Lockhart said, “You can’t sit back and wait for people to cover you.”

Neil Amdur, the sports editor for The New York Times for more than a decade, through 2002, stressed that the NFL years earlier had a commissioner in Pete Rozelle who got his start in public relations.

“The league then was very aggressive in managing the news,” he said. “While the NFL has always been good, they have had to figure out a different method with some of the more aggressive reporting that has gone on.”

Amdur cautioned that The New York Times lawsuit threat is just that, and many don’t believe the NFL would go through with the case because of the inevitable discovery.

Jason Stallman, the current sports editor for The New York Times, said in response to questions about the recent story and the NFL’s reaction: “Of everyone who read the article, as far as I know only two people have said it wasn’t newsworthy: a spokesman for the NFL and a lawyer for the NFL. We interpret that as a fairly strong signal that it was quality reporting.”

For his part, Lockhart said the decision whether to sue is not his, but what’s certain is that today’s era for league news coverage is different than it’s ever been.

“In a crowded media environment,” he said, “everyone in the news business is fighting for relevance and fighting for audience, and that has resulted in across the board much more point-of-view journalism.”

And how the NFL might respond to those reports is changing as well.

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