It’s a week of contrition in the world of sports.
Lance Armstrong is giving Oprah his highly anticipated apology, as Pete Rose hopes to regain public favor—and that of the Baseball Hall of Fame—with his new reality TV show “Hits and Mrs.
On Thursday, the National Hockey League joined the chorus with an apology in full-page ads in major daily newspapers across North America.
Although the NHL’s turn at remorse generally follows good crisis communication principles, several crisis PR professionals remained skeptical of the mea culpa.
“The ad from the NHL is a case of a little too late,” says communications blogger, Jeff Esposito
. “As a fan, am I happy to see hockey back? Yes, but at the same time, they will not earn one of my hard earned dollars this year.
With the season ready to roll after a lengthy lockout, the formal letter to fans follows the verbal apology by commissioner Gary Bettman. The tone of the apology published on Thursday strives at sincerity and attempts to create mutual understanding with its fans.
“As your teams prepare for the opening face-off of the 2012-13 season, we thank you for your patience and we apologize to you for the time we’ve missed. From today forward, we will do everything we can to make this season worth the wait.
“We are committed to earning back your trust and support the same way it’s earned on the ice: with hard work and unwavering dedication. Your cheers drive us forward, and we’re committed to making you proud to be a fan—by delivering a game with the action the skill and the intensity you deserve.
“Like you, we’ve missed NHL hockey. We’ve missed the clutch goals, the big hits, the electrifying saves. We’ve missed the flash of the red light, the sound of the siren, and the way the building shakes when the home team scores.
“It’s time to focus on the best athletes in the world, on the enduring greatness of the game, and—above all—on the connection that binds, fans, players and families everywhere. NHL hockey is the best in the world. The future in incredibly bright. So let’s drop the puck and marvel at all the remarkable things the players do with it.”
Sports fans can be a jaded bunch, however. It took years for baseball to win back fans after the 1994-95 lockout, which is considered among the worst work stoppages in sports history. Baseball fans were justifiably angry, and those who actually bothered to show up at the games took it out on the players.
“We all understand that owners and players need to make money, but drawing out labor negotiations [makes] the public suffer,” said Esposito. “In a time when they could have learned from the NFL or NBA, they decided that the No. 1 league in their minds is not No. 1 in those of Americans.”
Crisis communications expert Barbara Laidlaw
was skeptical of the apology’s sincerity.
“The letter is fine for what it is, but it doesn't really show much remorse in my opinion,” she said. “I’m not sure fans will buy the sincerity of the message here. “
Ultimately, it will take more than one letter of apology to make fans happy again. As with any good crisis communication strategy, the NHL will have to implement a plan to demonstrate goodwill and giveback.
“At this point, the NHL really needs to demonstrate in meaningful ways to their fans that they care,” says Bob Stellick
, a sports PR expert. “The key for the league to be successful is to follow the apology up with a tangible step-by-step plan that connects directly with their fans. The NHL needs their fans permission to be a meaningful part of their lives again.”
Named one of Twitters' Top 52 PR pros, Elissa Freeman is a columnist and PR consultant based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @elissaPR.