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The Cleveland Browns on HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’: A Weekly Reputation Management Tutorial

[By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications]

Tell the truth. Tell it all. Tell it first. Tell it fast. Tell it on “Hard Knocks.”

OK, that last one about HBO’s Emmy Award-winning inside look at a National Football League team’s training camp is not one of our fundamental principles at Hennes Communications when we’re working with clients facing a crisis.

But the first four are. And they speak to why the Cleveland Browns should embrace being this season’s featured team on “Hard Knocks.”

A few weeks ago, the anticipated news was made official: the Browns would be this season’s “Hard Knocks” team, starting August 7 for five weekly one-hour episodes of the show that has taken football fans behind the scenes, to see players getting cut, players suffering season-ending injuries, players trash-talking and lots of coaches using lots of swear words.

The selection of the Browns immediately kicked off the debate about whether this was a wise decision for a team that’s gone 1-31 in the past two seasons and prompted one national sports talk show to do a parody of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – as in “the Browns are a dumpster fire.”

The announcement prompted the expected jokes – and plenty of sportswriters basically arguing, why not do it? As’s Mary Kay Cabot wrote, “I think it will be good for the Browns. I think it will go a long way towards flipping the script for the legions of fans who have jumped ship and provide a glimpse of the new talent on the team.”

There’s no clear connection between “Hard Knocks” appearances and team performance. As reported, “Five of the 12 teams documented improved their record in the season immediately following the show, five finished with a worse record and the last two had exactly the same record. In addition, five of the 12 teams made the playoffs in that next season – but four of those five teams already had winning records the season before HBO showed up. What all that means is there’s no, well, hard evidence that having Hard Knocks around helps or hurts – but it certainly can’t hurt the Browns, who have one total win over the last two seasons and are fresh off the fifth winless season in NFL history.”

From a pure public relations standpoint, it’s a slam dunk (mixing sports clichés) if attention is your goal. Out of curiosity, I typed “Should the Browns do Hard Knocks” into Google – and got a mere 771,000 hits. (For context’s sake, I also tried “Should the U.S. have stricter gun laws?” – and got 391,000 hits. Clearly, our national priorities are in order.)

And to be sure, the Browns didn’t really have a choice.

The show, which HBO does in conjunction with NFL Films, has three criteria that make a team eligible for selection: No teams with a first-year head coach. No teams that have made the playoffs in the last two years. And no teams that have been on the show in the last 10 years. Six teams were eligible. The Browns were selected.

Not everyone with the Browns is thrilled at the prospect. First-year General Manager John Dorsey told ESPN Cleveland 850-AM, “I don’t think there’s anything good that comes out of ‘Hard Knocks,’ but we’ll see.”

We’ll leave the football to Dorsey, head coach Hue Jackson and the Browns players, but we’d tell them that from a crisis communications and reputation management standpoint, dive in.

Here’s another of our fundamental principles: If you know that news is going to break about you, tell the news yourself. Take as much control of your own narrative as possible.

That won’t be complete control for the Browns. As Pat McManamon of ESPN Cleveland wrote, “The Browns do not have any editorial control over storylines or how they are presented. However, Jackson and Dorsey will be able to watch the show in advance to ensure nothing of a competitive nature is revealed.”

But the “competitive nature” clause gives them wide latitude – and, in the end, this is an NFL Films production. NFL Films is not exactly in business to hurt NFL teams.

To be sure, there are rewards and risks. “Hard Knocks” makes stars. And in rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield the Browns may finally have a star – and definitely have a media and marketing savvy young man, as Crain’s Cleveland Business reporter Kevin Kleps explored extensively.

“Hard Knocks” also can have not-so-positive lasting effects on one’s reputation. Witness Antonio Cromartie’s infamous attempt to recite his own children’s names.

As well, the Browns are not exactly foreign to the concept of reality television. Co-owner Dee Haslam was a co-founder and until 2017 CEO of RIVR Media, which produced more than 3,000 episodes of shows for 21 TV networks, including the likes of “Trading Spaces” and “Almost Home.” One could argue that, with Dee Haslam, the Browns are ideally positioned to take advantage of “Hard Knocks.”

Here’s one more fundamental reputation management concept: You can’t communicate your way out of a problem. You have to act your way out. And then you have to communicate those actions. To make fans happy, the Browns must take action to get out of their 1-31 hole. But if they’re convinced that this time they’ve gotten it right and that we’ll all be able to see the beginnings of that evolution, they should welcome in the “Hard Knocks” cameras.

“Show me, don’t tell me” is one of journalism’s oldest sayings. The Browns can start showing everyone  on Aug. 7.

So many disclaimers…Thom Fladung, managing partner at Hennes Communications, worked in newspaper newsrooms for 33 years and worked with some of the journalists quoted in this story. He’s also a lifelong Browns fan, has been to numerous games and once owned a rubber dog nose. Which he wore, in public, at the height of the 1980s Dawg Pound era. And, yeah, he’ll be watching “Hard Knocks.”


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