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Washington’s NFL Crisis Response Comes Up Short
The cheers don’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Last week, Washington’s NFL franchise announced it would use a placeholder name for the upcoming season while it undergoes a thorough rebrand to replace its current name and mascot.
On September 13, the Philadelphia Eagles will kick off the 2020 season against the … “Washington Football Team.”
A New Name 50 Years in the Making
The Washington Football Team name comes after a new round of calls for the organization to change its existing name, a slang term for Native Americans that dictionaries define as a racial slur.
Ultimately, it was the team’s most visible corporate sponsor, FedEx, that made the name change happen by threatening to pull financial support for the franchise. That’s resulted in more bad PR for the team.
Washington officially announced a name change on July 3 – only two months before the start of the season. That’s not a lot of time to pick a new name. From video games and beer koozies to international licensing agreements, rebranding an NFL team is a sprawling undertaking.
The Washington Football Team isn’t a rebrand, it’s an un-brand.
Incomplete Crisis Planning
The team should have been better prepared for this crisis. Calls to replace the name go as far back as 1968. There was a major push in 2013, when the Oneida Indian Nation launched a campaign. Many prominent news organizations stopped using the team’s name in their coverage.
Yet at the time, team owner Daniel Snyder infamously doubled down on the name in talks with the press. He told USA Today:
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Snyder’s “read-my-lips” moment has its own clear media training takeaways, but the 50-year journey to a new name offers a larger lesson in navigating a crisis.
Good Crisis Response Needs a Game Plan
Effective crisis planning means not just anticipating potential criticisms, challenges and worst-case scenarios, but preparing your response. It means taking a hard look at your organization to identify weak spots and blind spots and developing proactive anchor messaging and stand-by materials to address them.
Snyder’s comments about his utter refusal to change the team’s name show either a complete lack of proper crisis planning, a spokesperson who ignored good communications strategy or some combination of both.
In crisis, speed counts. Despite a nationwide racial justice around racial justice, Washington failed to take steps to account for its part in that conversation. When it did get pulled into the news cycle, it waited almost a month after the story’s kickoff to show any kind of dedicated action.
For other teams with questionable or offensive names and mascots, it’s past time to begin formulating a crisis plan.