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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Proactive Crisis Comm?

I give credit where and when credit is due. And my alpha dog PR nod of the day goes to the public relations team over at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN.

When aging country singer Hank Williams Jr. went off the reservation and onto the Fox morning news show to compare the currently sitting president to Hitler and declared Obama as “the enemy,” ESPN didn’t wait to react. Given the current climate of today’s 24 hour news cycle, it wasn’t going to be long before ESPN was a part of the story, so the sports giant went into a little of its own prevent defense (to borrow a sports analogy).

And while Hank Williams Jr. is not an on-the-payroll employee of the Mouse or its sports arm, he is strongly associated with the brand via Monday Night Football. For more than 20 years Williams has belted out the musical intro to the iconic football programming franchise. Whenever you heard the singer shout out, “Are you ready for some football?” it set the stage for the game about to be aired.

Williams’ inflammatory words were not only asinine and poorly chosen, they also were ill-timed. See, he chose to espouse his “political” opinions on a Monday morning and by that act alone, Williams threatened to take away the shine from one of ESPN’s premier products. As word of the Fox morning news show clip began to circulate, ESPN began to act and before it could become a part of the discussion, when everybody should’ve been talking football, the PR boys from Bristol tried to cut the story off at the knees.

First ESPN took no chances of people attempting to associate Hank the Tank’s political potty talk with the brand and cut his trademark intro from the program. Then it attempted to further distance itself from Williams’ remarks by issuing a very direct statement condemning the comments and making it clear that the singer does not speak for them. And finally, as an act of transparency, ESPN had its reporters cover the complete controversy (which included their response).

It should be noted that the situation with Williams is indicative of the problem with today’s celebrities and pseudo celebrities alike, and the brands that solicit their services. You can’t control what people say or do when they are “off the clock” and the celebrity/pseudo celebrity seems to forget that they, by way of their business arrangements and endorsements, also represent the people who pay them. If you have a controversial opinion that you want to share, maybe should think bigger picture before sharing it. I know that I have lots of opinions to share, but I don’t share them all and I water down some of the ones that I do.

But back to ESPN’s strategic move, by taking the bull by the horns sort of speak and not running or hiding from the potential problem, ESPN nullified the negative impact that the story would’ve had on their organization and showed their stakeholders/audiences what the brand does or doesn’t stand for. This was an excellent text book example of proactive crisis communications and how deal with a problem.

Right now, I give this PR response a grade of “A” but reserve the right to downgrade depending on how ESPN handles Williams for the rest of the season. Is the Hank Williams Monday Night Football intro a wrap or is it just on the shelf for a spell?

What are your thoughts?


  1. I hope they can his ass permanently. We can do without stupid and thoughtless political commentary from people who have only earned a public voice by their name, talent, or ability in an entirely different arena. Just for the record, I've always hated the way football promotes itself. It is one of the most cerebral sports on the planet, but few people realize that thanks to goons like Hank Williams, Jr. That intro song was just second rate country music anyway.

    I wonder if ESPN would have been so quick to be righteous if Hank Williams, Jr. was actually talented and that song hadn't already seen its better days.

  2. Interesting point you made. And it will be even more interesting to see how ESPN plays this moving forward. Following the controvesy Williams has since issued an apology.

    Also, I wonder what ESPN would've done had Williams been an actual employee. I'm thinking he would've gotten pink slipped.