Admitting You’re Wrong is the Right Thing to Do – Lessons from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s Sept 19 Press Conference

By Merna Skinner (Words at Work) - No Comments

Today, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell held a press conference to try and regain control of the public discussion about his controversial decisions over recent domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players.

Whether you agree with Goodell’s remarks or not, in terms of how he managed his press conference, Goodell demonstrated techniques every leader should use during a crisis.

1. Admit your mistakes.  The public will more readily forgive you when you admit you were wrong.  When you deny or try to dismiss a real mistake, you create further mistrust. As Shakespeare wrote, Methinks thou doth protest too much.  

2. Take personal responsibility.  Goodell went beyond admitting the mistake, he owned it.  “Unfortunately, over the past several weeks, we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me.”

3. Say you’re sorry.  Viewers will reject a canned admission of culpability – they want to know you feel remorse. “I got it wrong on the handling of the Ray Rice matter,” Goodell said. “And I’m sorry for that … but now I will get it right.”  (Note how he shifts to the future).

4. Widen the focus.  The commissioner shifted focus from the NFL, in particular, to society, at large, when he said that the league reflects the domestic abuse taking place across the country. He went on to discuss how the NFL will partner with two domestic abuse agencies to offer financial and other support.

5. Time your announcement.  As the Washington Post reported, Goodell took a page from the Bill Clinton playbook.  Friday afternoon is an ideal time to break news you’d like to fade quickly.

6. Never answer “what if” questions.  Although one reporter snared Goodell with a series of tough follow-up questions (the Commissioner failed to look away at the end of each answer) – Goodell did respond on point when asked (and I’m paraphrasing here), If all the NFL owners met today, do you think they’d vote you out?  

Correctly and politely, Goodell said that it’s impossible to respond to speculation.  He then promptly looked away.  Lesson learned.


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Merna Skinner
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