Here’s Some Unsolicited Non-Legal Advice for the Embattled Owner of the New England Patriots
3/21/19 – – On a popular TV game show, tension builds whenever host Howie Mandel looks into a contestant’s eyes and asks, “Deal or No Deal?” The pressure is intense as players struggle with the choice of accepting an amount of prize money they’ve already been offered (deal) or risking it all for a chance to win up to a life-changing one million dollars (no deal). Viewers share in the suspense, trying to determine at what point a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, charged in Palm Beach County with two counts of soliciting prostitution in a strip-mall massage parlor, is facing his own real-life deal-or-no-deal situation.
Prosecutors have offered him what appears to be an attractive plea deal: Avoid the embarrassment of a trial and have the misdemeanor charges, which are punishable by up to one year in jail, dismissed in exchange for community service, a $10,000 fine (chump change for Mr. Kraft), participation in classes on the evils of human trafficking, submission to a STD blood test, good behavior and an admission that prosecutors have the evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
It’s the last concession that’s leading sources close to Mr. Kraft to predict a “no-deal” response from the embattled billionaire. His high-powered legal team, despite the existence of video evidence of his alleged criminal conduct, has not wavered from its initial public statement: “We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity.”
What should Mr. Kraft do?
I’ll leave the legal strategy to Mr. Kraft’s very capable attorneys. They may be seeking an even better plea deal not stipulating such an emphatic admission of guilt (deferred prosecution agreements don’t always require a mea culpa). And they may feel confident in their ability to challenge the admissibility of the evidence and mount a compelling defense in court.
I want to focus on a different court – the court of public opinion.
Beyond Mr. Kraft’s legal jeopardy, he’s facing a raging reputational storm in a media environment in which most billionaire business people (especially those expressing positive thoughts about Donald Trump) are considered guilty until proven innocent. All that he has achieved, his good name, his role with the Patriots, as well as his family’s future are at risk. Sure, he’s had to deal with personal challenges throughout his life, including the death of his beloved wife a few years ago. But this is different kind of predicament.
In Chapter 2 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“What a Crisis Is and Is Not”), we identify the circumstances and heightened threats that break away from normal patterns and truly rise to the level of a “crisis”:
- Loss of control
- Disruption of the normal flow of business
- Intense public/media scrutiny
- The potential, if recognized too late or addressed improperly, to erode public confidence to the point of jeopardizing a company’s very existence.
We also contrast crises with more manageable situations:
Crises are harder to deal with on an emotional level than run-of-the-mill difficulties because of the pressure, embarrassment and shame they can create for those in the eye of the storm. When you’re personally experiencing a crisis, you feel it in the pit of your stomach. Your resilience, fortitude and even your faith are put to the test.
By any definition, Robert Kraft is battling a reputational crisis. So, how do we develop an effective response in harmony with and support of whatever legal strategy he pursues?
My counsel is always to start with first principles.
In Chapter 16 (“Guiding Your Response with First Principles”) we emphasize the importance of determining who and what you are protecting in the midst of the storm. What’s most important to you? Audiences expect you to defend yourself, but they are even more interested in and impressed by the others you care about when you’re under fire. I would advise Mr. Kraft to base his next moves on what he thinks would be best for his family, the Patriots players who look up to him, the NFL, and victims of sex trafficking. (Guilty or innocent, this experience should have opened Mr. Kraft’s eyes to the suffering caused by human trafficking.)
Making your defense bigger than yourself guides you down some very promising paths.
No matter what ultimately happens in court, Mr. Kraft’s reputation will be in need of serious repair. If he learns from this experience and demonstrates a sincere commitment to addressing the issue of human trafficking with his extraordinary wealth and leadership skills, he’ll have a good shot at preserving and building upon the respect he’s earned from his family, his players, his NFL partners and the public.
In assessing the deal-or-no-deal proposition he’s facing in court, Mr. Kraft would be wise to consider the key objectives of crisis management outlined in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient:
- Honestly assess the challenges you’re facing
- Stop the bleeding
- Stay in control and character, maintaining the natural flow of business
- Respond with confidence in word and deed to maintain trust and resolve the crisis.
An honest assessment will confirm that Mr. Kraft’s reputational challenges are more threatening than his legal exposure. Accepting the plea deal (avoiding a trial) would immediately stop the bleeding. And launching a bold stop-human-trafficking initiative would allow Mr. Kraft to get back in control and give the people and institutions he loves permission to publicly re-embrace him.
Not all will be forgotten. But much will be forgiven.
UPDATE: On March 23 Robert Kraft issued his first personal statement regarding the charges against him. https://www.si.com/nfl/2019/03/23/robert-kraft-issues-statement-says-truly-sorry-prostitution-charges-patriots