Forum: PR pros on the path forward for Robert Kraft
The situation and circumstances surrounding New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was charged last week with soliciting prostitution at a Florida spa, was the main topic of conversation in recent days with my friends, colleagues and even the patrons at my favorite local restaurant. While the Patriots issued a statement denying any illegal activity by Kraft, and Kraft himself pleaded not guilty late last week, many of the conversations centered around how the 77-year-old could repair his public image, and how this could affect the NFL’s ownership ranks.
The news about Kraft runs counter to his image as a successful leader, philanthropist and valuable voice in the NFL and MLS, where he owns the New England Revolution. There is some public information, but much remains unknown. In talking to leaders in crisis communications and sources I confide in, here are some storylines that I’ll be keeping an eye on:
First, what is Kraft’s strategy to repair his image? Sources stressed that he must be forthright and honest in what did or didn’t happen, as the facts will almost certainly come out. Because the full details have yet to be made public, many wondered if Kraft could gain control of the narrative and tell his story. Some PR pros expressed surprise to me that Kraft didn’t try to get out in front of this quickly and provide a contrite, reasonable message explaining his poor judgement. Others suggested he follow the NBA/Mark Cuban example and financially back an initiative that could help change a corrosive, degrading and repressive culture. Many top sources felt by having a more public approach, Kraft could have attempted to move on from the matter.
Second is the NFL’s reaction, which is a more complicated question. My best sources believe it won’t be easy for Kraft, as players and owners will push for the league to come down hard on him. Among ownership, the tenor will be especially fascinating. While his colleagues certainly respect Kraft, there is lingering animosity over the Spygate and Deflategate scandals, not to mention the fact that the Patriots’ success has led to resentment and, understandably, jealously. They would have no problem with a substantial punishment.
Kraft has remained very active in league affairs and maintained a working relationship with Commissioner Roger Goodell even after Deflategate, as he blamed the poor legal advice Goodell received from his staff for the commissioner’s ruling of a four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady. If Kraft chafes at Goodell’s punishment, will he remain engaged with the league? In 2003, Steelers owner Dan Rooney turned day-to-day operations over to his son Art; could Kraft do the same with his son Jonathan, who is extremely well-prepared and talented? I don’t expect that to happen imminently, but the franchise is well-situated for success and continuity under the family’s ownership.
Another aspect sources are watching is with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With contemporary owners Jerry Jones and Pat Bowlen having been elected to Canton, the conventional wisdom was that Kraft would be the Contributors nominee for the class of 2020. Kraft clearly wants such an honor and has been an active and generous supporter of the Hall and the players who are honored there. The Contributors selection committee will put forward its 2020 nominee this summer, and many would not be surprised if Kraft’s induction is delayed.
What can’t be overlooked is that the NFL is in transition when it comes to owners on the front lines of the key issues. Jerry Richardson, who was very involved in leading owners on league issues, sold the Carolina Panthers last year. Bob McNair, who owned the Houston Texans and led the influential Finance Committee, died last November, and now the influence of Kraft — easily the most powerful owner outside of the Cowboys’ Jones — could be diminished.
I expect Goodell’s key power brokers going forward will be his close circle of Rooney, Giants President and CEO John Mara and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, the new chairman of the Finance Committee. Also, don’t overlook Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf, who is very even-mannered and well-spoken, and gaining more and more respect in league circles, along with his brother Zygi. But make no mistake, any diminished role for Kraft would underscore a league clearly undergoing a shift of its leadership.
Back to the conversations at my local restaurant. There is a pile-on mentality right now and the story still needs to play out. Kraft should have a reservoir of capital to draw from based on his lifetime of work. But he is damaged in the court of public opinion and will have to confront potentially more harm to his image and influence.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.