When PR problems at several organizations occur simultaneously, they invite comparison. And sometimes one company's problem occupies so much media oxygen that other stories, which merit coverage, go relatively unnoticed. Thanks to Facebook’s woes, few non-football fans know of the Urban Meyer saga.
Meyer is a fabled college coach in his first year at the professional level. He’s helming the Jacksonville Jaguars, a club that last season won one game, its first. It lost the next 15. That dismal record, though, entitled the Jags to select first in last summer’s college draft.
The team’s pick, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, was acknowledged as a can’t-miss. Indeed, Lawrence has looked good in his first four games, all losses. So, yes, that's 19 straight losses.
It’s likely that part of the credit for Lawrence's early success belongs to Coach Meyer. Similar to his star quarterback, Meyer is new to the NFL and was college football royalty. At Ohio State, Meyer won conference, division or national titles in each of his seven seasons. In just one month as a pro coach, he’s lost twice as many games (four) as he did in any season at Ohio State.
Meyer's Full Story
That’s not the whole story with Meyer, though. Several times he retired from coaching only to return with another team. After leaving the Florida Gators in 2010, allegations surfaced that he’d overseen a toxic team culture.
Despite these issues, Meyer is a winning college coach (187-32). Perhaps the greatest. His won-lost percentage (.854) is the best. It’s why he’s coaching in the NFL.
In football, wins equal money. And in nearly all for-profit organizations, something or someone who can bring in a lot of money will have a long leash. Many rules don’t apply to these people or things. That can lead to PR incidents or full-blown crises. Huge successes like Meyer and Facebook are examples.
After the Jaguars’ most recent defeat, in Cincinnati Sept. 30, Meyer stayed behind in Ohio. He said he’d visit family in his former home state. The team flew back to Florida without him.
Part of the PR pro’s craft is optics. The optics of a head coach not flying home with the team after a loss are bad enough. A new coach who’s winless skipping the team flight seems even worse.
Yet Meyer, 57, offered more bad optics. Allegedly filmed during his "family visit" Oct. 2, a nine-second video shows a young woman rubbing against the coach at his Ohio restaurant. The woman is not a member of Meyer’s family. She's also not his wife.
Meyer apologized Monday (Oct. 4).
Not long after, another video appeared on social. In it, Meyer is touching a woman’s rear; it looks like the same woman from the first video.
Owner's Strong Statement
Team owner Shad Khan issued a statement Tuesday (Oct. 5). It read, in part:
[Meyer’s] conduct last weekend was inexcusable. I appreciate Urban's remorse, which I believe is sincere. Now, he must regain our trust and respect. That will require a personal commitment from Urban to everyone who supports, represents or plays for our team. I am confident he will deliver.
From a PR perspective, Khan’s words, though one day late, seem mostly on target. And instead of issuing an anonymous statement from the team or a spokesperson, the owner inserted himself into the situation. That raised its importance and is highly unusual in sports.
In addition, Khan’s use of the word “inexcusable” immediately set the tone. Bravo to any C-suite member who acknowledges a PR incident’s bad facts instead of couching, denying or ignoring them.
Unfortunately, Khan softens the blow a bit. He says, “Now [Meyer] must regain our trust and respect.” Better to have said, “He’s lost our trust and respect and must regain it.” (Talk about a bad situation: a coach without the trust and respect of the owner and team. A coach who’s known for demanding discipline now finds himself in need of it.)
Khan also doesn’t apologize to fans, especially those who might need to explain to small children why Coach Meyer is in the news. However, Khan tacitly apologizes. He notes Meyer must prove himself to “everyone who supports, represents or plays for our team.”
Meyer Still Employed
Last, Khan, as far as we know, hasn’t acted. He's not disciplined, suspended or fined Meyer. He’s also not communicated guidelines for how the coach will win back trust.
Perhaps Khan is angry at himself for hiring Meyer, a historic winner and money maker who likely was able to skirt rules in his previous positions. Still, compared to Zuckerberg and Facebook, Khan's response makes him look like a PR genius.
There’s little need to recap Facebook’s week. The contrast between Facebook's and Khan's response is stark.
Unlike Khan, Facebook’s C-suite members and founder Mark Zuckerberg deflected and denied whistleblower Frances Haugen’s terrible yet seemingly obvious facts.
In the Jaguars’ example, videos provided the awful facts; a stack of papers hurt Facebook.
Been There Done That
As many have noted this week, much about the allegations against Facebook is not new. For years, parents decried its harmful content, though they use the platform a lot. A recent series in The Wall Street Journal noted Facebook's content issues. Profits over people is not new either.
The week's new wrinkle is ex-employee Haugen’s load of Facebook internal documents. As Kaila Colbin wrote, Haugen brought "receipts." They helped establish her credibility and appearances on "60 Minutes" and Capitol Hill.
Also not new is Facebook’s incident-management playbook. Similar to one other companies, large and small, use, Facebook has "deflected, deceived and denied" previously. Recall Zuckerberg’s initial reaction when allegations arose that Russia used Facebook to spread disinformation during the 2016 US election. That’s a "pretty crazy idea," a far less experienced Zuckerberg said.
Eventually, Facebook ate crow. It sent Congress thousands of Kremlin-related ads. There’s little reason to think the Haugen incident will end differently, with Facebook humbled a bit.
Just as Meyer needs to regain Khan's and his players' trust, it's one of the first things Haugen mentioned. In her view, Facebook isn't entitled to the public's "blind trust." Mark Ritson adds the lack of trust in Facebook is so old a message, "it has almost become expected."
A winner in so many ways, Zuckerberg is accountable only to himself, she argues. Like Meyer, Zuckerberg and Facebook, flushed with success, operated above the rules for years.
Perhaps no longer. Facebook reportedly is concerned. Media reports say Facebook, above it all for years, is acting like a normal company as a result of the latest tumult. It has a team reviewing upcoming products. It's considering what rollouts will do to Facebook’s reputation, the WSJ reported yesterday (Oct. 6).
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him @skarenstein