Ray Rice, PR Fumbles & Notes From R. Kelly’s Playbook

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If  Solange-Gate taught us anything, it’s that what happens in an elevator, rarely stays in that elevator.

But perhaps NFL commissioner Roger Goodell missed that memo.

Days after Ray Rice punched and dragged his former girlfriend, now wife, Janay Palmer, in an elevator at the Revel Casino NFL leadership sprang into quiescence.

Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh addressed the news media, insisting that “Ray has told me his side of it, and everything we’ve seen so far is very consistent with what he said.”

In late February, the league once again minimized his assault charge releasing a statement that read, “This is part of the due process for Ray. We know there is more Ray Rice than this one incident.”

Then in May, the Atlantic County prosecutor Jim McClain (remember that name) showed the embattled running back mercy by admitting him to a pre-trial intervention program that precludes prosecution or jail time.

Every step of the way, the NFL worked hand-in- hand with major news organizations to shape a domestic abuse allegation that would hurt neither the player nor the franchise. At the time, America’s most powerful sports leviathan was in the midst of negotiating a 15.2 billion dollar deal with ESPN to broadcast its Monday Night Football through 2021, and billions more were coming from NBC, FOX, and CBS. There was a lot on the line.

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The press conference was  the dénouement, the  blockbuster ending that tied all the loose ends of a dodgy story together.  Inevitably orchestrated by public relations experts with a lifetime of experience in ‘spin’, they wove a tale of a heroes fall from grace and his subsequent redemption. Janay appeared beside him as the stoic and loyal wife, a stock character, who, not unlike the Greek goddess Demeter, is willing to sacrifice anything for her family.

Rice expressed remorse. Janay apologized for walking face-first into a fist.

The NFL live-tweeted the entire event.

The reporters played along.

And a potential public relations nightmare was avoided.

Almost.

Who knows exactly how TMZ does it. Maybe they have a cache worth millions. Maybe they are in bed with B-613. Either way, time and time again, from Donald Sterling’s racist rant to  Solange’s elevator tantrum, the internet powerhouse single-handedly shapes the national discourse with their aggressive, if not unethical, newsgathering tactics.

In a digital coup de tat, TMZ singlehandedly turned the sports world upside down, prompting many media specialists to ponder aloud the relevance of the major networks who, given their cozy position with the NFL, would and could never have broke the news. The incriminating video did not require words. People saw for themselves that the NFL’s statements regarding the event were misleading, that fairy tale press conference, a sham.

TMZ’s triumph over traditional media (ethics aside) speaks to how the internet transformed news into a guerrilla industry in which behemoth organizations can no longer control the flow of information. Not the NFL. Not the major networks.  Breaking news can come from anywhere at any time.  That means no topic is off-limits and no secret  is safe.

I started thinking about public relations blunders two days ago, when a female English teacher at my alma mater, Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, was arrested for allegedly having sex with five 15-year-old students.

I know. Crazy.
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Nonetheless, the news broke Wednesday evening, and by Thursday there was a swarm of news vans in the suburban hamlet. Reporters positioned themselves across the street from the school, their mics hot and hungry for soundbites. And there was the principal, a former elementary school PTA president, still in her first month on the job, standing outside, arms crossed like a momma bear guarding her precious baby cubs from the salivating journalists.

The administration instructed students to keep the matter private, requesting that they avoid the media at all cost. The school district chose the same approach. They released a terse statement, but refused to discuss the embarrassing issue further. Perhaps they figured that if they remained tight-lipped, and gritted their teeth, those nosy reporters would go away.

Never that. The kids spoke. They told reporters about the illicit sex tape between teacher and student. The story aired. And the school district learned the hard way that “no comment” is in fact a comment, and quite often an incriminating one.

In the olden days, when there were just the papers and the 6 o’clock news, it was expected reporters give equal weight to both sides of the story. Back then, refusing to talk may have killed the story.

In those days, reporters were beholden to PR professionals for information and PR professionals were beholden to reporters for press, and so they performed a delicate dance of interdependence, much like the big networks and the NFL do today.

But that was before  24-hour cable news. And before  an explosion of the internet media entrepreneurs blasted the news industry at its core , sending power , and opportunity to the margins. Today news is a voracious, pulsating beast with an insatiable appetite for the sensational and the new. No one waits for an official sound bite anymore and no one asks for permission.

In retrospect, Goodell’s handling of the crisis was not only a display of moral callousness, but also of extreme pretention. He’d been so spoiled by the leagues intimate relationship with the legacy networks that he underestimated the power of of the internet, and overestimated the power  of the Old Boys Club.

Much like the execs that sent this country spiraling into the financial doldrums, Goodell thought he was too big to fail.

Now Goodell and the prosecutor must  deal with fallout from which they may never professionally recover.

Goodell is the same commissioner that suspended Michael Vick from the league indefinitely without pay (thought he’d eventually return to a $100 million dollar contract) for participating in an illegal dog fighting enterprise. Yet, when presented with allegations of domestic abuse against woman of color, he handed down a two-game suspension.

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And prosecutor Jim McClain accepted Rice into a pre-trial months after he rejected Shaneen Allen’s application. Allen is a 27 year old mother of two who faces up to 11 years in prison for carrying an unlicensed firearm when pulled over for a routine traffic stop in New Jersey. The controversy is that Allen, who bought the firearm to protect herself after being robbed twice, is licensed to carry in her home state of neighboring Pennsylvania, and was completely unaware that when she crossed the state border, she was in fact committing a felony.

Crises are best handled with speed and consistency. It took five months for the NFL to hand down a two game suspension and another month to initiate a domestic violence policy.

It took a hours to suspend Rice indefinitely once TMZ released the second tape.

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From every angle, this is a public relations disaster for the NFL and Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office because it ultimately exposed these men for who they were. The prosecutor and the commissioner, men with a bias against women of color.  Rice, a man capable of knocking out and dragging his soon-to-be wife.

So what about Rice, the man at the center of the debacle? Can  he ever restore his reputation?

I think so. The funny thing is, when it comes to men who abuse women of color, we have a tremendous capacity to forgive… and deny.

Consider the celebrities who’ve once found themselves in Rice’s position. Chris Brown. Floyd Mayweather. Dr. Dre. Big Pun. Jason Kidd. Wesley Snipes.  Daryl Strawberry. Aaron Hall.

That’s not to mention  Robert Kelly who’s sold over 50 million copies worldwide in spite of the fact that  we watched him “rape” and relieve himself on a 14-year-old girl.

The Chicago crooner has survived dozens of potentially ruinous statutory rape allegations by convincing his victims to settle out of court. It is no coincidence that Kelly limits his predatory exploits to under-aged Black women from poor families who, in spite of their psychological trauma,  accept his hush money because they feel they’ll never receive justice anyway.

Crisis management will remain an uphill battle in the digital age, where the suits remain in power, but not in control. But for Ray Rice, the best line of defense against scandal comes from R. Kelly’s “golden” playbook, and that is to choose victims wisely, preferably those who are undervalued in their community.

Victims for whom justice is a fleeting ideal.

 

 

 

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