USA Hockey just learned the value of a good public relations strategy—the hard way.
After weeks of negotiation and threatening to boycott the upcoming world championships in Plymouth, Michigan, the United States national women’s hockey team won its lengthy battle for equal rights.
It wasn’t just a victory, it was a landslide. The reported new terms result in some players earning more than seven times the amount under the old contract. Players will also receive the same travel accommodations as their male colleagues, as well as improved insurance coverage.
Of course, a big factor in the win for Team USA players was being on the right side of popular opinion, but when it came down to the head-to-head battle for possession of the public sphere, the team’s star players dominated their competition.
Media gong show
As soon as the debate was taken public, USA Hockey was on its heels playing defense and that’s never a good place to start. Team USA representatives were aggressive reaching the public through various media channels and being first in front of the camera meant players could tell their story before it was told for them. This meant players controlled the narrative.
In the rush to catch up, USA Hockey made some major mistakes.
First, the organization said it would never pay its players—drawing a hard line in the sand that shows a lack of sympathy or understanding of the issue. “USA Hockey’s role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so. USA Hockey will continue to provide world-leading support for our athletes,” said Jim Smith, USA Hockey President. A statement like this also makes it really hard to change your mind.
Second, the organization released misinformation about the negotiations that added fuel to the fire, swiftly converting any remaining fence-sitters. There’s no faster way to lose public support than lying about the details—especially when there’s an army of opponents ready to refute.
Power in numbers
Successful campaigns need supporters and Team USA players inspired advocates through a consistent and pointed narrative—“standing in solidarity”. They asked for support from their peers, fans and anyone who felt an injustice had occurred for too long. If you don’t ask, you probably won’t get.
Former Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser and other members of the Canadian national team openly spoke out and agreed to media interviews backing their rivals. It’s common knowledge in the sport that Team Canada’s women’s players receive significantly more support than the Americans and these contracts were used as precedence in the court of public opinion.
In the short-term, it’s a competitive advantage for Canada to play against an under-funded Team USA, but Team Canada knows building its social capital and contributing to the long-term success of the sport is far more valuable than wins on a score sheet.
It’s all about timing
Team USA players didn’t just wake up on a cold day during the winter of 2017 and decide they wanted more support from their association. This conversation has been ongoing and a point of contention for years. The communications strategy was launched just in time for this year’s world championships, where all eyes were on the tournament host, Team USA.
This timing meant the players could piggyback on the tournament’s momentum and use upcoming games and coverage to help promote and push their cause. Perhaps most importantly, Team USA players knew the media had a vested interest in covering this story as it is sure to increase viewership/readership of the upcoming games. Media also did not want to cover a tournament where the host team didn’t participate. The delivery of a signed deal just days before the tournament is no coincidence.
While smart PR produced great results for Team USA players, bad PR has done serious damage to Hockey USA. Watch for the organization to launch a new PR strategy to rebuild its reputation and regain the trust of hockey fans across the country.
Nick Ritcey is a Consultant at NATIONAL’s Halifax office. As a former journalist and on-air reporter for CTV, he provides media strategy and training for clients across Atlantic Canada. Nick holds a Master of Public Relations from Mount Saint Vincent University where he continues to share his knowledge as a part-time instructor of communication studies.