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A Football Team By Any Other Name

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A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet,” so sayeth the Bard. And the Washington Redskins, if known by any other name, would still likely have a tough time making the playoffs. If you’re a football fan, or just someone who keeps up on current events, you’ve likely heard how the U.S. Patent Office has ruled the Washington Redskins name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and federal trademarks for the name have to be canceled (if not, here’s link to today’s Wall Street Journal report: http://online.wsj.com/articles/u-s-patent-office-cancels-washington-redskins-trademarks-1403103213)

So what PR strategy should team owner Dan Snyder undertake? Mr. Snyder has been reported in the media as saying he has no intention of changing the team’s name. While the Redskins can currently maintain their name and logo while the ruling is under appeal, should they? What to do, what to do…

As is often the case, in the midst of disaster arises opportunity. In my opinion, any defense to retain the “Redskins” name, right, wrong or neutral, is, at this point, irrelevant. A voice in favor of “Redskins” will be perceived as a vote for bigotry and prejudice. And in our internet-instant-media-drenched society, perception very, very quickly becomes reality.

Besides, change, while often difficult, is more often than not, healthy and good; if humans didn’t gravitate toward change, we’d still be living in caves.

Why keep the name anyway? Will Washington fans abandon the club if they change their name? If Baltimore could live with losing the Colts and could adopt a new team with a new name, new colors, an new logo, then why can’t the same thing happen in Washington? Only difference being, the players are staying the same, just the name is changing.

As I say, seize the opportunity. Why not have a contest among Washington fans to come up with a new name, new logo, new colors even? First, any current Redskin merchandise will sell like crazy now that it’s shelf life is coming to an end; secondly, you build interest and excitement about the NEW merchandise with the new name, et al.

This, believe it or not, is the easy part. The hard part is rehabilitating the image of Mr. Snyder and the Washington club administration as a whole, all of which have been cast in the role of “bad guy.” Even if Mr. Snyder offers a “mea culpa” at this point, people will say, well, he’s only doing this now because of circumstances, he should have stepped forward to institute a change a long time ago, etc.

Sadly, we in PR do not have access to a time machine (if only!), so we’ll have to make do. My recommendation would be, of course, to make the name change, and institute the fact that the change is going to take place ASAP. Secondly, hold a news conference. Trying to get away with “issuing a statement” will be perceived, at best, as a very defensive maneuver, and at worst, a cowardly one, so definitely need to “face the music” and face the press.

Those working with the Washington organization can’t deny that they have either favored the idea of keeping the name or at least haven’t taken a stance against it.I'm reminded of my days working for the Washington Times in 1984; the newspaper was owned at that time by the Rev. Hyung Jin Moon of the Unification Church; at that time, there was alot of talk about the church being a cult, and many rumors and strange stories flourished about the so-called "Moonies." In my short stint at the Times, I had about as much to do with Mr. Moon and his church as I had to do with the moon in the sky, but that "guilt by association" factor was inescapable, i.e. "Oh, you work for the Times? Are you a Moonie?" The situation is similar here, in that not only is Mr. Snyder's reputation on the line, but that of everyone who works for the Washington club organization.

The time to act is now. As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and if nothing is said, people will "fill in the gaps" with their own ideas as to "just what's going on anyway" at Redskin headquarters. My experience is what people respect is someone’s willingness to come forward and say, “I was wrong. And I’m going to make it right.” As I teach my PR students, in a crisis, people want to know three things: What happened, what are you going to do about it, and what does this mean to me.

Regarding what happened, this is where Mr. Snyder and company can offer any explanation as to why they defended the Redskins name. As my father would say, for this portion of the presentation, “don’t make a career out of it,” as it can come across as making excuses or be perceived as, “Well, my back’s against the wall, I have to do this, but I really don’t want to.” Whether it was a matter of loyalty, tradition, whatever, it’s really doesn’t matter, and that point should be made, i.e. our heart was in the right place, but our head clearly wasn’t, we apologize, and here’s what we’re going to do to make it right. This dovetails into the next segment, “what’s going to be done,” and this is where plans for coming up with a new name and logo could be announced, which leads to “what does this mean to me” where “me” is “the Washington football fans.” Explain how fans can get involved with picking a new name. Perhaps this will be a special campaign with a website, FACEBOOK page, etc., where people can post their ideas for the new name and logo. The winner in the contest might receive two life-time passes to all Washington home games.

So, as my PR students know, I’m recommending two key crisis communication strategies: “Corrective Action,” where the company takes steps to repair the damage from the crisis and make sure no further damage is done, and “Full Apology,” taking responsibility and asking forgiveness. An additional strategy that may be appropriate here is “Ingratiation,” where the organization acts to appease the groups involved. Whether the Washington organization wishes to make a donation to organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (http://www.ncai.org/), the Native American Sports Council (http://www.nascsports.org/), perhaps have a portion of the cost of all game tickets to go to said organizations, etc., an act of contrition can be a positive step for an organization under fire to take.

How this ultimately plays out is anyone’s guess at this point. But the Washington organization’s past argument that retaining the Redskin name means being “true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents” (as Mr. Snyder noted in a public letter to fans) is no longer viable,unless, as Senator Harry Reid noted in the WSJ article, that is a tradition of “honoring” racism. And to be PERCEIVED as racist, even if one is not, is deadly, for in our world, perception is reality.

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