By Noah Lichtman, Vice President, Winning Strategies
The New England Patriots may or may not win the Super Bowl this year, but they are already winners in a far more important setting: The court of public opinion.
Patriots management earned this victory by speaking honestly about a star player’s arrest for murder—an approach that may seem so obvious yet has dogged so many organizations when they’ve been caught in legal crosshairs.
We have all heard it—the popular refrain from crisis communications experts in situations that intersect with legal proceedings: “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”
Yet, in the murder arrest of now-former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, the public got two seemingly candid statements on the situation from the multi-billion dollar organizations connected to Hernandez—the Patriots and the National Football League.
The Patriots announced they had released Hernandez an hour and a half after his arrest. The team’s statement explained its decision as “simply the right thing to do” at this time and characterized the team’s feelings on the matter by saying “words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation.”
The NFL followed in suit: “The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling.”
Conspicuously absent are the hackneyed phrases about an inability to comment due to a pending legal case or standing policy not to comment before Hernandez has his day in court. The team could have decided to release Hernandez without any statement, letting people draw their own conclusions about the reasons for his release.
Yet the Patriots chose unapologetic openness over crafted legalese.
They evaluated the gravity of a murder investigation and the evidence surrounding Hernandez’s arrest. They sent a clear message to their fans that there is no place for accused murderers in the Patriots organization.
They proved that sometimes the public perception battle is won by taking the decisive right step in the court of public opinion. And this is worth more than contractual or legal risks.
The Patriots took this forthright approach in a murder investigation—the most extreme of legal situations—that arguably calls for a different set of rules in the court of public opinion. But it begs the question—why does it take a murder charge for an organization to be blunt in its communications?
The driving force behind the standard, safe response is to do no harm. Avoid introducing material that can be turned against you at trial. Don’t hurt the legal strategy.
In simple terms, the goals in the court of public opinion are too often trumped by the legal strategy.
We don’t know the extent of the Patriots legal risk in releasing Hernandez prior to a conviction. Ultimately, the team may have felt it had no choice in taking that action. It did, however, have a choice in how much to say publicly on the matter.
By using their own ethical compass and saying what they perceived as right instead of what was safe, the leaders of the Patriots put themselves in a strong position with their fans and the public at large. When considering public statements in situations that cross-sect with the law, there is no one-size-fits-all response. All organizations in the public eye should give fair weight to the impact on public perception before defaulting to the legally safe response.
Noah Lichtman is a vice president with Winning Strategies, a private modern media company based in Newark, N.J.