PR in Pro Sports: The New England Patriots

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Posted At: January 1, 2008 10:29 AM
by Dustin Fowler

President Nixon had Watergate. President Clinton had Whitewater. And now Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have Spygate.

In week one of the NFL regular season, the New York Jets played the New England Patriots. During this game, a Patriots’ employee was caught videotaping the Jets’ sideline. The NFL confiscated the tape and video camera from him after the first quarter of the game.

According to the New York Times, the Patriots’ employee was not one of the designated camera operators permitted on the sideline to shoot footage of the game. Therefore, the Patriots violated league rules that prohibit taping an opponent’s signals on the sideline.

After investigating New England’s actions, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell penalized the team by fining Coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the franchise another $250,000. The Patriots was also forced to forfeit its first-round draft pick in 2008.

Despite Goodell’s stiff punishment, the New England Patriots have endured far worse in the court of public opinion. Since the incident, the reputations of Belichick and his players have been questioned and criticized not only by the media, but also by sports fans all over the country.

A key question is the legitimacy of the Patriots’ success over the past few seasons. The media and fans alike have gone as far as calling the three Super Bowl championships the Patriots have won in the last six seasons tainted.

Eight weeks have passed since the violation and the Patriots have a perfect 9-0 record. They are defeating opponents by an average of three touchdowns per game, and setting numerous offensive records.

After the team defeated the previously unbeaten Indianapolis Colts in week nine to stay undefeated, Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula, who coached the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only undefeated season in NFL history, openly criticized the New England Patriots in an interview with the New York Daily News.

“The Spygate thing has diminished what they’ve accomplished,” Shula said in the interview. “You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments.”

Shula goes on to say that if the Patriots were to go undefeated this season, an asterisk would need to be placed next to the team’s record because they got caught cheating.

Because of Shula’s statements, the Patriots’ video scandal was brought back into the media spotlight. Every sports network and radio station across the county began debating whether or not an asterisk should be attached to the Patriots’ record if the team completes a perfect season.

The publicity that Shula’s comments created only helped to increase the whirlwind of media coverage that has surrounded the New England Patriots all season. Between the court of public opinion and the media, the Patriots’ reputation and credibility have been on a constant roller coaster ride of ups and downs.

Certainly this is a difficult situation for the Patriots’ public relations director to handle. If I, a public relations major and an avid sports fan, was in the director’s shoes at this point in the season, my main strategy would be to try to rebuild the team’s tarnished reputation.

First, I would have a meeting with the players and coaches to discuss how they should address the media when asked about the Spygate scandal or the possibility of a perfect season. I’d want them to emphasize how hard they are working on the field, and how they are focused on their next opponent. My goal would be for the media to view the Patriots as a team that works hard for every bit of success it achieves.

My second tactic would be to create media coverage to display the team’s active role in the community, and its participation in charitable organizations, such as the United Way. I would send press releases and pitch story ideas to local and national media about this aspect of the Patriots’ team. I also suggest creating commercials starring Coach Belichick and a few players that show them participating in these off-field activities. This tactic would expose viewers and football fans across the nation to another side of New England’s team, showing them that the Patriots are about more than just winning football games.

The final tactic I would incorporate is to have Coach Belichick interviewed for a story in Sports Illustrated. In this interview, he could explain his side on the Spygate issue and his thoughts regarding Don Shula’s comments.

Because Sports Illustrated has such a large readership, the story would allow Belichick to address these issues and defend his and his team’s reputation in a way that reaches a vast audience.

With that said, what would you do if you were the public relations director of the Patriots this season? How would you handle the controversy surrounding the team? Could you get the job done?

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