Friday, September 11, 2009, 12:40 PM

How the Redskins failed the headline test

(Image credit: The Washington Post)
This column was first published in The Maryland Daily Record on Friday, September 11, 2009.

By Henry Fawell
Special to The Daily Record

Sports teams spend plenty of time in the headlines, but usually not for the reasons that landed the Washington Redskins in the press last week.

The Redskins’ decision to sue their fans – and the resulting media and public firestorm – should serve as a cautionary tale for the business community about the importance of public relations.

The lesson? Just because your company has license to do something, doesn’t mean it should. The Redskins learned this lesson the hard way. Here’s how:

Forty miles south of Baltimore, the world’s third-wealthiest sports franchise sued Pat Hill (pictured), a 72-year-old grandmother, for breach of contract last year because she couldn’t pay for her multi-year season ticket agreement.

The Redskins won easily in the court. Ms. Hill was required to pay the team $66,000 to cover the ticket prices, interest, and the team’s legal costs. The judgment pushed Ms. Hill to the brink of bankruptcy.

They won … or did they?

Despite winning in the court of law, the Redskins would pay dearly in the court of public opinion.

The Washington Post ran a front-page, top-fold exposé on the lawsuit last week, complete with a photo of a teary-eyed Ms. Hill in her home surrounded by memorabilia of her beloved team.

The article infuriated fans and opinion leaders alike. One sports columnist wrote that the team’s actions “[spoke] to a basic lack of civility that’s shocking, even now when shock value is difficult to achieve.”

Within 24 hours, the Redskins capitulated. Ms. Hill would no longer owe them $66,000. She would be relieved of her contractual obligations.

Here’s the PR lesson: Was Ms. Hill in violation of her contract? Yes. Did the Redskins have a legal case against her? Absolutely. Does that make for smart public relations? Of course not.

Front-page news can hurt

The Redskins failed what PR professionals call the Headline Test.

The test requires that you consider not just whether a particular company practice is legal or routine, but rather how your stakeholders would react if that policy were splashed across the front page of the newspaper.

Unfortunately, too many companies fail to consider public opinion when adopting polices that, in management’s view, seem just fine.

Sports teams aren’t the only ones failing the Headline Test. Longtime Baltimoreans will remember when Sony, the multibillion-dollar electronics corporation, slapped Sony Florendo, the owner of a modest Filipino restaurant, with a $3 million infringement lawsuit because she named her restaurant after herself.

Strong legal argument? Perhaps. Bad public relations? You bet.

Let’s also not forget U.S. automakers, who incited the wrath of Congress last year by flying corporate jets to Washington to beg for money. The plush jets were standard company practice until they were subjected to the Headline Test.

Consider Time-Warner. The media company was forced to shelve plans to charge customers tier-pricing for Internet service in North Carolina after a public uproar and congressional inquiry. Perfectly legal policy, but terrible public relations.

And of course, AIG sparked outrage for handing out $450 million in bonuses after taxpayers had forked over billions of dollars to keep the company afloat.

The common thread

What’s the common thread? Each company was following a routine business practice. They just didn’t account for how those practices would be received when subjected to the Headline Test.

So what’s the solution? Give your public relations team greater input on how company policies would be perceived by customers, investors, board members and reporters.

If you’re hiring a PR adviser simply to crank out press releases, you’re not really getting your money’s worth. Trust them to be forward-thinking and to steer your company clear of potentially disastrous public relations crises.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, an ounce of PR prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If your company took the Headline Test today, would it pass or would it fail? What “routine” company policy would spark uproar among your stakeholders if it became public?

Now is the time for executives to sit down with their public relations team, think hard about their company’s version of lawsuits against Granny and corporate jets, and take the Headline Test. You may be surprised at what you find.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly, and his e-mail address is

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now these guys are lower then The Raiders. I am no longer a Redskins fan.

September 25, 2009 at 11:21 PM  

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