*This post was originally published in PR Week
New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft is one of the most visible non-players in the National Football League — perhaps the most popular and valuable entertainment brand in America. During each Patriot’s game, Kraft’s face is regularly shown on television from his owner’s box more often than any owner in the NFL not named Jerry Jones. And Kraft’s team has been one of the most successful sports franchises of the past 20 years, having won six Super Bowls since 2002.
But fame has a price, and as we have all heard during the past week, Kraft is among 25 people facing first-degree misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution after allegedly receiving sex acts in a Florida massage parlor at least twice in recent months. Law enforcement officials went so far as to publicly detail Kraft was videotaped receiving oral and manual sex and paying a woman at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla. Even worse for Kraft — yes, it gets worse – the police investigation into the spa was aimed at stopping human trafficking, which Florida State Attorney Dave Aronberg equated to “modern day slavery,” calling it “evil in our midst.”
In short, one of three most visible Patriots ambassadors (Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, then Kraft) representing a brand valued by Forbes at $1.4 billion, that is in turn a sub-brand of an embattled league that still managed to eek out some $11 billion in revenue in 2017, has a significant crisis on its hands.
So what’s a wealthy (and apparently horny) NFL figurehead to do when his world comes crashing down, is plastered across every news outlet and social media platform known to mankind and associated with prostitution, human trafficking, slavery and evil?
Here are five Krafty reputation management suggestions I’d offer for Robert Kraft’s consideration:
Krafty Crisis Tip #1: Off-the-shelf statements don’t move the needle when it comes to managing public perception.
Some crisis counselors will tell you there is a handbook, but there really isn’t. Each and every dilemma has its own unique traits and nuances, and managing them is more art than science.
In beginning its defense of Kraft’s reputation before the evidence becomes public, his team started with a rather remarkable mistake in my opinion by stating: “We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity.”
Denial, well, I guess that sounds effective, in theory. But how does any competent, upright mammal rationalize Kraft’s denial — that he has not “engaged in any illegal activity” — while the Po-Po is stating publicly they have the Patriots’ owner caught on video getting a little sumpin-sumpin?
I’ve long believed that if you can position yourself as the reasonable party in any dispute, you win. To me, this defense — based on what we know now — is not reasonable.
Krafty Crisis Tip #2: Shield yourself with the law.
The Kraft Group would have been wise to solely use the latter part of its media statement: “Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”
When any crisis falls under legal jurisdiction, unless you are at least 113.7 percent certain you’ve done nothing wrong, you should leverage that lawful engagement to delay in directly responding to an accusation. You might recall then-candidate Donald Trump hilariously took this tact with his taxes. I say “hilariously” because there really was no legal jurisdiction, but somehow it worked (with some). Regardless, the general rule of thumb when managing a crisis involving law enforcement — as any competent attorney should tell you — is to withhold comment as, in reality, your public statements to the press can ultimately be used against you in a court of law.
Krafty Crisis Tip #3: Prepare for your eventuality with messaging that’s realistic, reasonable and credible.
He may not have known that the women tending to him at the day spa were potentially enslaved into prostitution, but he certainly knows whether he stuck something where maybe he shouldn’t have. And if he did, Kraft needs to carefully prepare his mea culpa for the eventuality when the aforementioned video that law enforcement has gleefully boasted about goes public in a ball of TMZ fury.
Perhaps a statement along these lines would work:
After my wife Myra passed away in 2011, I began a deep spiral into a dark place. I was lonely, I was in pain, and I sought comfort in places I should not have. But I now realize how wrong I was — how these terrible choices have only hurt me and those I love. More than anything, I must continue my journey of healing in a healthy manner — through the love of those who truly love me including my children and grandchildren, good friends and all of those who have supported me throughout my life. I am truly sorry and will accept any legal punishment as well as that from the National Football League which I recognize I have hurt and damaged with my actions.
— New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft
To me, that’s a reasonable narrative I can somewhat buy, even if I just wrote it at my kitchen table while high on mass consumption of Twinkies and Diet Coke.
Krafty Crisis Tip #4: Take your medicine like a big boy.
If found guilty by a court of law or Dr. Phil, Kraft will need to humbly accept his legal penalty, most likely a fine and probation. But then, ironically, comes the bigger hit — a robust hand slap by the meaty palm of the NFL. The league will probably hit him with, at the very least, a season-long suspension as well as a multi-million-dollar fine. Ouch!
But if Kraft and his inner circle are wise — and that video contains what we have been led to believe — he’s already talking to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about his penalty which will include relinquishing control of the Patriots.
Which leads us to…
Krafty Crisis Tip #5: Have a dignified exit strategy.
Just like when Jerry Richardson was forcibly detached from the Carolina Panthers following his scandal, Kraft is done. He’s dead weight for the Patriots and NFL for the foreseeable future, which for a soon-to-be 78-year-old, that means he’s a goner.
So say goodbye, Bob. No more owner’s box, sideline strolls with Tommy B., Lombardi Trophy presentations, nor Super Bowl parades. His son Jonathan Kraft is team president and has been relatively visible with the elder Kraft during games in the owner’s box. It’s his team now.
Kraft’s last move is perhaps most important as it will be remembered most.
Accordingly, it’s in his best interest to exit with whatever dignity he can, avoid any disputes such as the sad-sack fight Donald Sterling put up when he was jettisoned by the NBA for making racist remarks, lest Kraft’s reputation becomes even more tarnished. Although heh, it’s hard to imagine a worse way to ride off into the sunset, right?