Two Examples of Bad PR, Q3 2014

Former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson in America’s hottest hotseat–a hearing on Capitol Hill.

United States Secret Service: The Secret Service has enjoyed decades of sterling reputation as the law enforcement agency that protects the president of the United States. Now, thanks to a series of scandals and lapses, the Secret Service has joined the sad ranks of the Veterans Administration and the IRS as just another federal body held in disdain by the public for lax standards and poor performance.

The reputational slide began in the first year of the Obama administration when reality show stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashed a state dinner, making it past two security checkpoints to shake hands with the president. In 2012, numerous Secret Service agents were caught soliciting prostitutes in Cartagena, Columbia, in advance of the Summit of the Americas attended by President Obama and other heads of state. Other episodes of misconduct followed including an agent found passed out drunk in an Amsterdam hotel hallway preceding an European summit.

The Secret Service went into crisis mode on September 19, 2014, when an intruder carrying a knife jumped the White House fence and entered the building, running through much of the ground floor before being tackled. Agent mistakes and a deactivated alarm made the breach possible. As is often the case with crises, revelations surfaced of other incidents–a bungled response to shots fired at the White House in 2011; an armed security guard allowed to share an elevator with President Obama in 2014, violating Secret Service procedures.

To answer for the lapses, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson sat in America’s hottest hotseat–a Capitol Hill hearing–giving an evasive performance that only fanned criticism of the agency. The next day, she resigned under intense pressure.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faces ongoing criticism over his handling of domestic violence among players.

National Football League: By pure business measures, the NFL is at its peak, the most lucrative sports league in the world, setting new marks for revenue. By public relations measures, the NFL is at a nadir, wracked by revelations of players committing spousal and child abuse, with league and team leaders accused of minimizing and possibly covering up the crimes.

In February, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was arrested along with his now-wife Janay for an altercation at an Atlantic City casino. Video heightened the crisis–a clip in February of Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of an elevator and a September bombshell showing Rice leveling Janay inside the elevator with a left hook. In the time period between the videos, Rice received supportive words from his coach, a lenient sentence from law enforcement, and an equally lenient two-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

AP reported that law enforcement sent the security footage of the punch to the NFL, with receipt of the footage acknowledged in a voicemail. Even as Rice was suspended indefinitely from the league and fired from the Ravens, the NFL was accused of sitting on the damning footage.

In May, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, beat his four-year-old son with a switch (a stripped tree branch) to discipline him for pushing another one of Peterson’s sons off a motorbike video game. The four-year-old suffered lacerations to his back, limbs, buttocks and scrotum, reported by a doctor. A grand jury decided not to indict Peterson, but law enforcement in Montgomery County, Texas, issued an arrest warrant in September.

Like Rice, Peterson received supportive statements and light consequences, being deactivated for one game by the Vikings. The ensuing public uproar, sponsor pullouts, and call for suspension by Minnesota’s Governor Dayton compelled the Vikings to reverse course and put Peterson on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list, barred from team activities but still receiving his salary.

As seen with the Secret Service and Ray Rice, Peterson’s initial crisis led to further scandalous revelations. He had been investigated and not charged in a previous child abuse case. The Star Tribune cited Peterson as the father of at least six children out of wedlock and detailed a sex party at a motel paid for with a credit card from his nonprofit organization. Peterson compounded the crisis by admitting to “smoking a little weed” in October, violating the terms of his bond.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has been the proverbial lightning rod for criticism against the NFL and its perceived culture of leniency and complicity regarding players’ misdeeds. Like Julia Pierson on Capitol Hill, he has been dunned for evasive public statements and an inability to bring accountability to his organization. It remains to be seen if he will follow Pierson’s example to the end with a resignation.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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