Employer Draws Public Criticism for Embarrassing Contract Language for Employee
The Arizona Cardinals could have, should have known better of the PR risks
A wild story came out this week that an employer (the Arizona Cardinals) put an “independent study” clause in its $230.5 million contract extension offer to an employee (Kyler Murray). Because this is strange, unprecedented maybe, the media jumped all over the story to report and analyze it, with many finding it shocking, absurd and for some people, racist.
After the backlash, the employer publicly commented that the clause was not what critics assumed it was about, yet the Cardinals leadership team has since removed that specific language from the contract.
"After seeing the distraction it created, we removed the addendum from the contract," the team said in a statement. "It was clearly perceived in ways that were never intended.”
Questioned about the situation, Murray spoke calmly and pointedly to the assumptions and narrative, expressing his disappointment that people would question his professionalism and commitment.
Clearly, Cardinals ownership and management had some reason — maybe legitimate, maybe not — for initially including that specific wording in the contract. Yet it begs the question, what was that reasoning rooted in and why was it necessary to make it a condition of the negotiation and agreement?
Did the Cardinals not realize the news would become public and make the organization a target for critical analysis and upset, meaning as well that the contract, as signed, likely would not survive as is?
While Murray’s agent, Erik Burkhardt, permitted it and Murray signed it, he was left feeling disrespected, which is maybe not a good first step forward in the parties’ ongoing professional relationship.
“This is a clear case where business interests and reputational interests collide,” says Matt Weaver, senior vice president at Actual Agency.
“Clearly the Cardinals felt a strong need to include this clause to ensure that their significant financial commitment to Murray was protected. But more communication between agent, player, and the club was needed,” he suggests.
That’s not all, Weaver says. The Cardinals should have assumed the worst as being possible, if not guaranteed.
“There needed to be an agreed-upon plan and messaging to address the contract terms once they became public. It's 2022. You should always assume a leak (of information). These things always make their way outside of the building and on to social media.”
An employer not conducting effective forward thinking is not unheard of and that’s a significant error. With additional thought or seeking feedback from people outside the organization, the Cardinals likely would have learned this was dangerous territory it was entering, and its decision would be negatively perceived and strongly judged.
“This is a significant blunder by the Arizona Cardinals. This has been a highly anticipated contract for the past several months, if not longer,” Weaver says. “They knew Murray wanted to be paid amongst the highest players in the league. The study clause was likely added in response to Murray’s agent upping the financial terms of the deal at the eleventh hour. But not thinking through the optics of such an unprecedented move illustrates that the Cardinals were not prepared for high-pressure decision making.”
There’s proof, Weaver says, to back up this claim.
“The fact that they came out publicly to walk back the study clause within 24 hours proves how myopic their decision was.”
The Cardinals could have acted more intelligently and skillfully publicly responding to criticism if it was committed to retaining the study clause.
“We advise all our clients to have a well-thought-out crisis and reputational preparedness plan in place and to revisit them on a yearly, if not monthly, basis,” Weaver says.
“The first question we ask the C-suite when developing these plans is ‘what keeps you up at night?’ This helps inform our scenario planning. The Cardinals, and every professional sports franchise, should include reputational issues with players on the top of that list.”
He talks about the specifics of this strategy.
“They should have had a ‘playbook’ for what to do if a player is discredited publicly, regardless of whether their own actions caused it. But just conjecture here, I think the contract was finalized so quickly that the communications team never had a chance to see it before it was leaked,” Weaver says.
Murray's agent, Burkhardt, surely had to receive a side-eye on this failing, if not from the media, then certainly from other players around the league, for allowing that contractual language and advising Murray to sign anyway.
“The agent needed to understand how this study clause would affect his client and his personal brand potential,” Weaver contends. “Murray’s reaction at the press podium is indictive of a person who was blindsided.”
It wasn’t Murray’s duty to protect himself, Weaver says, nor does it fall entirely in the lap of the employer.
“That responsibility falls on the agent more than it does on the Cardinals. It’s a case of business trumping reputation and image. Great companies and organizations know these two things cannot be viewed as mutually exclusive.”
The Cardinals responded promptly, to its credit, mitigating reputation damage, despite the stain left on its brand and leadership in critics’ minds.
“We always advise our clients to analyze the risk in their decision making, and to take time and look around corners before they act in a way that could cause public reaction,” Weaver says. “We never want to have to walk back a decision.”
He talks about what likely could have led to the outcry by media and the public.
“I think the Cardinals worked on this contract until the 11th hour before the start of training camp so they could announce they got a deal done before players arrived and didn’t fully appreciate the impact this study clause would have on Murray’s brand,” Weaver suggests.
“They should have known that Murray’s brand is the Arizona Cardinals brand. Unfortunately, I think the Cardinals will hear about this for another few days.”
Yet maybe more problematically, Weaver says, is how this story and public relations mess, could affect the employee, a critical member of the organization, moving forward.
“On the other hand, this will follow Murray for the rest of his career,” Weaver predicts. “There are plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks who will use this to challenge every throw or decision Murray makes on the field.”
The Cardinals also fell short in one other area, compounding its initial error.
“The team should have also had a group of PR professionals onsite to intercept the onslaught of reporters meeting Murray at training camp.”
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Michael Toebe is the creator of Reputation Notes and founder and reputation specialist at Reputation Quality, a practice that serves and helps successful individuals and organizations in further building reputation as an asset and when necessary, ethically and successfully protecting, restoring and reconstructing it.
NOTE: if you would like to be interviewed for the newsletter and can talk about matters of reputation, you can contact me at Michael.Toebe@Reputation-Quality.com.
Thank you to Matt Weaver, senior vice president at the Actual Agency for his time, expertise, insight and generosity on this interview.