Brands that drop the ball could very well learn from a man who kicks the ball.
When the Minnesota Vikings field goal kicker Blair Walsh missed the 27 yard chip shot that could have won their NFC wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks, he found himself in the crosshairs of crisis and scorn.
The game time temperature was -6, but the Vikings loss burned fans with the heat of decades of blown-up playoff dreams. The backlash against Walsh on social media was swift and condemning—and that’s being overly polite.
Walsh’s response could have taken many paths, among them hiding in the bowels of the stadium with the dirty laundry—and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he did something admirably remarkable. He didn’t run. He didn’t dodge. He didn’t blame.
He owned it.
Walsh’s contrition is a road map for brands, corporations and individuals on crisis communication.
His actions after that missed field goal can be broken down by his own apology, admission of failure, and plan for corrective action.
First, his apology. As reporters descended upon Walsh in the locker room perhaps expecting excuses, they instead got a lesson in humility. The sting of TV lights, microphones and sharp question can wither mere mortals. Walsh never blinked. He looked into all of those cameras and apologized. He kept his composure for more than five minutes before breaking down in tears only after his teammates came to console him.
Second, his admission of failure. Walsh could not have been more upfront. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I should be able to put that through. I’m the only one who didn’t do my job.”
Third, his plan of action. Walsh promised to essentially get back to work and fix it in the off-season. “I will be working hard to erase this from my career,” he said. Under the circumstances, one can forgive him for not having specific details. Brands and corporations get no such leeway—their plans must be timely, actionable and measurable.
Public Relations practitioner Phillip Lesly argues it can be a difficult dance re-shaping public opinion after a negative event. On any given issue that divides public opinion he argues that people will fall into several groups. (Figure 1) Lesley holds that 1% on either side of the issue are zealots—those wholeheartedly accepting or rejecting Walsh’s actions. Another 45% on either side are leaners. The 8% in the middle are thought leaders that can greatly influence the leaners.
Blair didn’t necessarily realize it but a day after the game, he got an important gift from a set of thought leaders that may have helped him soften his deepest critics and shift the leaners. It turns out those thought leaders were first graders—just six years old.
The students from Northpoint Elementary School in Blaine sent him letters and pictures assuring him all was forgiven. (Figure 2)
Figure 2 – Letter to Vikings kicker Blair Walsh from Northpoint Elementary School 1st Grader
“Everyone makes mistakes,” little Sophia wrote. “You can still help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year.”
Walsh wisely delayed his flight back home to visit the children in person. It was a made-for TV-moment, and TV and the kids didn’t disappoint.
“Kids like you are willing to do kind things like that for someone you don’t even know,” said Walsh. “It really meant a lot to me and I just wanted to say thank you.”
The NFL books will forever record the last Vikings play of the 2015 season was a missed field goal wide to the left. Let the record also show Blair Walsh’s response to teammates and fans was straight through the uprights.
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