The Shanahan videos: Lessons from the NHL on social media crisis management

Hockey season is back. And you know what that means, right? Yep, time for more what-hockey-can-teach-us-about-marketing posts. (Come on, you know you love them.)

This week, the social webs are abuzz with the series of videos being released by new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, explaining each disciplinary decision being made. The videos, released after each controversial call, suspension or – conversely – decision not to suspend a player – explain, in a matter-of-fact tone, the reasons behind the decision.

Hockey bloggers and journalists are agog over these videos. Here’s why marketers should be paying close attention:

See, the NHL had an image problem. A branding problem, if you will. Many people think of professional hockey as an excessively violent sport. A number of high-profile injuries to players after vicious-looking hits had marred the reputation of the league, particularly last season, when high-profile superstars like Sidney Crosby were taken out of the lineup by head injuries.

Making matters worse, fans and commentators perceived a lack of leadership on the part of the NHL. Dubious and inconsistent league penalties (or lack thereof in cases where they seemed warranted) eventually led to NHL Ops Director Colin Campbell’s decision to step down as principal league disciplinarian.

In other words, the fans were not happy. And hockey fans are very vocal when they’re not happy. They took to the blogs, social networks and media outlets in massive numbers. They flooded comment sections and radio call-in lines. They called for Campbell’s and Bettman’s heads on sticks. In particular, the incident known to Montrealers as “Chara-gate” – a hit by Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty that went inexplicably unpunished – led to a massive outcry and even a police investigation as a result of public pressure.

This is what many of you may recognize as a public relations crisis.

The rules of the game have changed.

I’ve worked with enough large and well-recognized companies to know that crisis management in the age of social media is a real concern for most brands. Social media has forever changed the face of corporate communications and PR. The old rules don’t apply anymore. There’s no such thing as a 48-hour spin cycle anymore. You can’t expect to be phoned for a quote, or to be given fair coverage and an adequate chance to respond. Facebook fans, Twitter followers and blog commentators are not journalists, and they often react on a hair trigger that can quickly send a small incident spinning out of control.

That scares the hell out of most companies. They feel like, no matter what they do, they are always living in fear of the next possible crisis situation. Many of them feel like they don’t have the proper systems in place to respond. “What if…?” keeps many a CMO awake at night.

That’s why the NHL example makes a particularly interesting case study. The Shanahan videos are only the latest tactic in what has been a cohesive strategy by the league to examine the root of the problem and to implement serious changes in response. By doing so, the NHL has avoided immediate “defend and react” trap of crisis management that so many companies fall into, and has displayed some vision, from which we can all learn a few lessons.

Let the sunshine in.

When US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, he was referring to political corruption and public policy. But it applies equally to corporations, nonprofit organizations, and interest groups.

Social media forces companies to be more open and transparent. They have two choices about how to go about it: Kicking and screaming all the way, or eagerly and happily. It should come as no surprise that the latter usually is more successful.

The Shanahan videos are the very definition of open and transparent.  They are designed to take the public behind the scenes, to showcase the reasons behind each decision. In doing so, these videos are involving people in the process.

And sure, there will be plenty of people who still disagree with the calls and argue that they’re unfair. Some of them still will be. That goes with the territory when it comes to sports. But at least the fans have something to refer to when they’re voicing their disagreements.

The lesson here: Involve your customers, critics and the general public. Show them what’s going on behind the scenes. Let them in on the factors that led to your decisions. Don’t make excuses, but offer explanations.

Leadership comes from the top.

Personal responsibility matters. Shanahan narrates each video himself. There’s no indication that he’s just a figurehead; instead, it’s obvious that he’s calling the shots. He puts his own name – and reputation – on the line with every call that he explains. He’s the boss, as far as league discipline goes, so the buck stops with him.

It helps that he’s a fresh face in NHL management. A recently retired superstar player, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, still well-liked and respected by league insiders and fans alike, Shanahan’s reputation has yet to be sullied. He saw an opportunity to capitalize on this with this video series, and in doing so, he has put his own stamp on the league’s disciplinary process – moving solidly away from the tainted Campbell era as quickly as possible.

The lesson here: Many companies face similar crises, and often they undergo leadership changes in the process. It can be tempting to put a low-level spokesperson out there as the scapegoat to take bullets from the media or the social web.  Resist that temptation. Put your leadership’s face on it. Have them stand up and make a personal statement, and make it real.

Is it risky? Sure.  But it’s becoming more and more essential. People respect leaders, even when they make mistakes. And this is especially true in social media arenas, which put a premium on authenticity.

Take the right tone.

Shanahan’s videos are receiving praise not only for their concept, but for their execution.

The production is straightforward but professional, using video replay to show the factors behind the calls. The tone is matter-of-fact, but friendly, open and personable, without pandering or trying too hard. Shanahan narrates each one himself, and uses the relevant sections of the rulebook to explain each decision, but he’s never defensive or self-righteous. He’s not standoff-ish. He explains himself calmly and openly, inviting the viewers to share in his decision, assuming that they will. In short, these videos hit all the right notes.

Every communications professional knows that it’s a lose-lose situation to be defensive with the media. This is doubly true in social media, where people will be able to instantly tell if you’re sincere or not.

The lesson here: Make allies, not enemies, of your audience. Just as hockey critics are fans of the sport, your customers are fans of your products and services. Get them onto your side by taking an inclsive, not defensive, tone. Find and speak to your common ground.

Look beyond the crisis.

The NHL has taken this strategy far beyond crisis management or media relations with its strategy. The videos have gone positively viral, being Facebooked, Tweeted, blogged, reported on, and discussed on radio call-in shows and television segments. They’re getting a ton of free press coverage. And every repost online is driving traffic to the NHL website and video centre, driving click-throughs and views of other content. I can only imagine that traffic on that site section must have spiked like crazy in the past couple of weeks, beyond the normal preseason levels.

With YouTube as the second most popular search engine, the potential keyword traffic and search benefits to the NHL are enormous. The videos themselves deliver advertising content, which is another source of revenue for the site. And the website is organized in such a way that users are directed to related content.

Furthermore, the videos themselves are going to exist as a content bank long into the future, and will surely be used as a teaching tool by officials, coaches and players at various levels of junior and recreational hockey.

The lesson here: Content created in response to a crisis situation – if it’s high-quality enough – can deliver additional benefits. It can drive traffic to your site, drive clicks and viewer engagement and conversion. It’s important to think about what the content will be doing for you today, next week, or a year from now. Remember that “crisis” can also spell “opportunity” – in Chinese or in any language.

Keep your head up.

Hockey players will recognize those four words as the single most important piece of advice they will ever receive from a coach. As marketers, we should do the same. The best way to avoid being taken out, hit from behind, or nastily checked into the boards is to keep your head up and see what’s coming.

When faced with an image problem, don’t just watch the crisis or the play as it goes by. Instead, think ahead to what you can be doing from a rebranding perspective to come out ahead of the whole thing once it’s over.

The new season begins tonight. Let’s hope that the NHL continues to crack down hard on illegal head shots, and stays transparent about its disciplinary process. Let’s see some clean, hard-hitting, fast-paced, exciting hockey… and lots of wins for my hometown Habs.