The NFL often is compared to law firms for its openness and accessibility, or lack thereof.
Many at 345 Park Ave., NFL headquarters, have thought the traditionally conservative league did not need an aggressive communications strategy, especially given the sport’s overwhelming popularity and massive reach. As a result, its PR effort was more about playing defense than offense.
Welcome to a new NFL. The days of hiding behind the shield are gone. A rush of off-field problems — from player health and safety to domestic violence issues to declining TV ratings and a tepid start in Los Angeles — has led to a far more forceful communications approach.
One of the biggest changes under Lockhart is the introduction of weekly media conference calls with influential NFL reporters. Lockhart uses these to share the league’s message and help shape the narrative.
The calls started after week one of the season and have continued through the first month. Lockhart briefs dozens of reporters up to three times a week, generally handling five to six questions in calls lasting up to 15 minutes.
“We have pushed to be transparent,” Lockhart said. “There is a strong sense that the game, and the platform and the NFL, is a very strong uniting force in this country and we have an obligation to be open and honest. And that’s what we try to do every day.”
Lockhart has addressed a variety of topics. After soft ratings in the league’s opening weekend, Lockhart said, “We try not to take too much out of just one week. We are confident that the ratings will be strong.”
On the morning before the second Sunday, ESPN reported that powerful Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had impeded a contract renewal for Commissioner Roger Goodell. Within 24 hours, Lockhart said on a conference call the story “had no validity” and that the contract talks were “moving nicely to a resolution.”
When stories focused on the sparse attendance for both the Rams and the Chargers in L.A., Lockhart went on the offensive, saying, “We remain confident that the city of Los Angeles can support in a very strong way two franchises, and we’re committed to making that happen as we work toward the opening of the new stadium.” He also questioned photos that showed sparsely attended games, saying they could have been taken at halftime.
This marks the first time in recent memory that a sports league has gone to such lengths to brief reporters during a regular season.
Lockhart said the idea of the weekly calls, which will continue through the entire season, was born out of frustration he felt over the summer that the NFL’s point of view was not getting across, especially the league’s handling of the Ezekiel Elliott case. Goodell has grown increasingly frustrated with coverage of the league, feeling that the NFL hasn’t received enough credit for many of its efforts, specifically around player health and safety, according to several league insiders.
Lockhart said top league brass have bought into the weekly outreach and said the calls have served their purpose so far. At times, Lockhart brings on other top league executives to discuss their areas of specialty, such as Mark Waller, executive vice president of international, who previewed the London games.
The calls have led NFL writers to quote the league’s message in stories during the week and in their NFL columns. For example, Boston Globe NFL reporter Ben Volin cited Lockhart’s take on ratings in a recent Sunday column.
The NFL previously believed that it could get its message out through a few large news organizations, but Lockhart signaled that those days are over, especially given the amount of online outlets that weigh in on the state of the league.
“You can’t sit back and wait for people to cover you,” Lockhart told SportsBusiness Journal last year.
Along with the sudden flow of information comes an aggressiveness straight out of Lockhart’s political playbook, which the Bronx-born communicator developed while defending President Clinton during his impeachment. Lockhart has sported sharp elbows in speaking on several topics, especially when it came to the Elliott case.
He raised eyebrows when he put out an unsolicited statement last month accusing the NFL Players Association of shaming the alleged victim in the Elliott case, which the union furiously denied, stating, “The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement.”
Lockhart also criticized the union’s outside counsel, Jeffrey Kessler, for his description of the alleged victim.
Lockhart doesn’t regret his comments.
“They crossed a line by going after the victim,” he said last week when asked about his muscular approach to communications in the Elliott case.
While the league’s aggressive outreach is new, Lockhart’s approach — from explaining ratings to attendance for the Rams and Chargers in L.A. — has not surprised PR professionals, who said the style fits Lockhart’s political background.
“People who come out of political communications have a DNA that is always playing offense,” said Ari Fleischer, himself a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush, and now a sports industry communications consultant. “There are many people in sports who are reluctant to step forward. They prefer to take their time, to see if it will blow over, deal with things one on one.”
Being on the offensive also means the league is less concerned about stepping on toes. In addition to taking on the NFLPA recently, Lockhart led an aggressive rebuttal to the New York Times’ controversial March 2016 story that compared the NFL to the tobacco industry. When ESPN put out a story in late August accusing the NFL of skimping on concussion research, Lockhart soon after put out a detailed rebuttal and offered league executives for interview.
“Joe clearly understands the concept of bringing a campaign mentality to the NFL,” said Peter Land, a partner at crisis communications shop Finsbury. “That includes everything from message testing to more of an emphasis on SEO, to consistent media briefings.”
PR veterans think the approach is smart, considering the recent issues sticking to the previously Teflon shield.
“Joe is very wise and knows from his extensive experience that consistent engagement and sharing relevant, timely information with reporters are key elements of any successful strategic communications plan,” said Matthew Hiltzik, a political PR executive who also has done work in sports, including for the New York Jets.
Lockhart — and his approach — were cited by the NFLPA on Sept. 15 when they issued a release by George Atallah, assistant executive director for external affairs, saying, “This week, the NFL continued their endless spin cycle by using their lawyers and political operatives in a series of background and on-the-record media calls that only included some of you.”
One issue to watch is whether Lockhart will continue to be as aggressive in taking on the NFLPA. Historically, the league has avoided public shots at the union. Labor peace is a key underpinning of the NFL’s health, so antagonizing the players has never been seen as good policy.
Even during the 2011 lockout, missives were usually aimed at policy differences, and staff often remained friendly. Kessler even attended the commissioner’s party at the Super Bowl in Dallas shortly before the lockout.
With the CBA expiring in four years and the NFLPA already warning that a labor stoppage is inevitable, the new approach at the NFL portends potentially a far more turbulent labor negotiation. Lockhart’s past and current strategy suggests the league’s days of merely playing defense are over.