The NFL got a lot of bad PR the last couple of seasons, in part due to some players protesting during the national anthem. So what often happens when a big corporation gets bad PR? They make changes to their PR department.
And quietly, over the last few months, three high-ranking NFL PR executives departed the league office.
On December 21, 2017, Sports Business Daily reported NFL Senior VP/Communications Greg Aiello would retire after the Super Bowl.
On January 18, 2018, the Washington Post reported NFL’s chief communications officer, Joe Lockhart, was also leaving after the Super Bowl to “spend more time with his family, do political commentary and perhaps teach.”
On February 16, 2018, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported NFL Senior VP of Communications Natalie Ravitz was stepping down as well.
So three heavy-hitters from the NFL’s PR machine are gone following a a pair of rough seasons for the league’s image. While the NFL has never specifically blamed the bad PR for the departures, you do the math.
There are rumblings that some NFL owners weren’t happy with how the league office handled the anthem-kneeling mess. While it’s somewhat unfair to totally blame the former NFL PR executives for the imbroglio the kneeling created, when leviathan’s like the NFL get bad PR, they often look for new spin doctors.
Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones, one of the most powerful owners in the league, wasn’t a happy camper about the anthem fiasco, and made his feeling known in October.
“We have a fan base that unquestionably, without even blinking, wants and expects us to stand for the anthem,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan’s G-Bag Nation show. “That’s just what it is.”
Jones went on to say, “There’s no question this anthem issue has really had a negative impact on our league.”
That might be an understatement.
Lockhart, President Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary from October 5, 1998 to September 29, 2000, was hired by the league on February 16, 2016. Around the same time, the NFL hired long-time Barbara Boxer-aid, Ravitz.
The last two years Lockhart served as the primary spokesman for the league, taking over for Aiello, who was re-assigned. So it’s hard to blame Aiello for the league’s messaging problems the last two years, since he was pushed aside for Lockhart.
On October 29, 2017, the New York Times did a feature on Lockhart with a headline, “The battle-scarred West Wing Veteran Scripting the NFL’s Anthem Message.”
Obviously that “scripting” didn’t work out particularly well, as the league had a hard time stemming the tide of a bad PR tsunami.
And Lockhart angered some owners by taking a shot at President Donald J. Trump, a harsh critic of the anthem-kneeling.
After Trump blasted players for kneeling during an Alabama speech on September 22, 2017, Lockhart responded, “Everyone should know, including the president, that this is what real locker room talk is.” This was a shot at Trump’s excuse after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released.
According to ESPN, Jones and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder confronted Lockhart for making a comment which they felt inflamed an already difficult situation.
So Jones and Snyder are likely happy that Lockhart is gone, and perhaps pushed for his ouster.
But now it’s a matter of the league hiring the requisite people to help them improve their image.
This will be easier said than done.