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Uncomfortable PR events in Cleveland no surprise

The  backdrop with team logos, microphones and team personnel sitting behind a curtain-draped table … looked like hundreds of other team welcomes, but this was no typical player introduction. In fact, if the Cleveland Browns intended for Deshaun Watson’s first press conference to be business as usual, it missed the mark. To be honest, there may not be any scenario during which someone who publicly accepts a job while facing 22 pending civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct would feel comfortable. (Note: He’s denied any wrongdoing.)

If you don’t follow sports, welcome to court, er, Watson’s prickly landing in Cleveland. Although he won’t face criminal charges, from a PR standpoint, he and the event looked uncomfortable. It was dour. From the moment Watson’s trade from the Houston Texans was announced, a football-following public wondered how this would play out.

And it got worse. Team owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who didn’t travel to be part of the press conference with the Browns’ general manager, coach and Watson, later met the media via Zoom. That felt slimier than the first.

The Browns PR group followed a longtime visual formula. Team management not so much. Hopefully, you respond better with insight in mind.

Don’t do desperate. It’s the NFL.  It seemed a given that a team would sign the once-respected and undoubtedly talented quarterback as soon as two courts announced they wouldn’t proceed with criminal charges. Teams like the Browns are so desperate to try anything, bad PR be damned, that they are willing to bet futures on it. A shipload of guaranteed money made what was a criticized move, worse.

People aren’t props. “We asked our daughters” or “my mother and aunties didn’t raise me that way” are flimsy-at-best ways to try to justify hiring someone who allegedly victimized women. The Haslams’ and Watson’s answers will never not feel creepy, and any PR pro worth their salt will tell you so.

Show empathy. Watson was asked if he felt any remorse for what he is accused of. He said he had none. That was the ultimate dealbreaker for some football fans, including a family that’s supported the Browns for more than 40 years. Even without criminal charges how do you not question someone’s core when he doesn’t accept responsibility for creating chaos for teams and those close to him, let alone more than 22 professionals he made feel so uncomfortable they filed suit?

Prepare for obvious questions. Watson was asked why he has had so many massage therapists when athletes typically hire one or two they trust. He blamed social media. And in a leaked deposition, he said he may have seen the massage therapists on Instagram, didn’t know if the people – all women — were licensed, trained or otherwise credentialed. Athletes who prioritize their health have to say, “c’mon man.”

What happens going forward is anyone’s guess. Watson says he won’t settle the lawsuits out of court which means they may long permeate his, the Browns and NFL’s space.

The Browns set themselves up for whatever comes their way. Win or lose, it might not be what they expect. — gs


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