Friday, June 29, 2007

World Wrestling Entertainment – the Chris Benoit communications breakdown

The fabric of sports entertainment, a multi-billion dollar industry, imploded earlier this week with the terrible news concerning the complete psychotic breakdown of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit suffered over the weekend. By the time Benoit’s killing spree had ended, Benoit had murdered his wife and his son before killing himself. Almost from the time the news broke late Monday afternoon WWE has failed at effectively communicating the tragic news and in getting their message to their fans and to the media.

After Benoit didn’t appear at two WWE events in Texas Saturday and then a pay-per-view on Sunday, the WWE contacted officials in Fayetteville, Georgia after Benoit missed the pay-per-view, this according to the timeline provided by the WWE.

World Wrestling Entertainment today released additional details of what it knows concerning communication with Chris Benoit and authorities before and after the tragic double homicide-suicide involving Benoit, his wife Nancy, and his son, Daniel.

WWE’s timeline of events began on Saturday:

On Saturday, June 23, Chris Benoit was slated to appear at a WWE live event in Beaumont, Texas. That afternoon, Benoit contacted WWE to inform them that his wife and child were ill, and that he would not be able to attend the show.

WWE executives rebooked Benoit’s flight for the following morning, allowing Benoit to miss the Beaumont event and making alternate arrangements for him to attend the pay-per-view event in Houston on Sunday.

WWE employees attempted to confirm with Benoit his travel plans but were unable to contact him.

Early Sunday morning, between 3:51 and 3:58 a.m., Benoit sent five text messages to co-workers:

Text Message 1 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:53am) - Chris Benoit’s cell phone

“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayetteville Georgia. 30215”

Text Message 2 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:53am) - Chris Benoit’s cell phone

“The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open”

Text Message 3 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:54am) - Nancy Benoit’s cell phone

“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia. 30215”

Text Message 4 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:55am) - Nancy Benoit’s cell phone

“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia. 30215"

Text Message 5 to one co-worker (sent 6/24 at 3:58am) - Nancy Benoit’s cell phone

“My address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia. 30215”

Throughout the day on Sunday, WWE made numerous attempts to contact Benoit both at home and at local hospitals in the Atlanta area. As of 11:00 p.m., WWE officials were unable to establish contact with Chris Benoit.

At 12:30 p.m. on Monday, June 25, WWE officials were notified of the text messages sent to the co-workers the previous day. By 12:45 p.m., WWE had contacted Fayetteville County Sheriff’s office requesting they check on the Benoit family.

Fayetteville County Sheriffs office made contact with WWE at approximately 4:00 p.m. advising that they had entered the house of Chris Benoit and found three deceased bodies – an adult male, adult female and a male child. WWE was told that Benoit’s home was now considered a major crime scene.

The decision to cancel the live event scheduled in Corpus Christi that night was made between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. In keeping with company policy, and with limited knowledge regarding facts of the case, WWE choose to air a memorial dedicated to the career of Chris Benoit. As facts emerged surrounding the case, all tributes to Chris Benoit were removed both on-air and on WWE.com.

WWE was stunned and saddened by the details released today by local authorities and is continuing to monitor the ongoing investigation.

In the first of many curious public relations decisions the WWE has made in the past few days the WWE did offer an expanded more complete timeline, however that has since be removed from all WWE sites.

After being informed by the Fayetteville County Sheriffs “that Benoit’s home was now considered a major crime scene” the WWE immediately cancelled that night’s scheduled event and to quote the WWE, “In keeping with company policy, and with limited knowledge regarding facts of the case, WWE choose to air a memorial dedicated to the career of Chris Benoit” The facts such as they were to the WWE late Monday afternoon, the company had a three-hour live event scheduled on the USA Network a few hours later. The same three-hour program was set to air on Canada’s Score Network on a tape delay basis.

Given the news that unfolded over the next six to seven hours airing a tribute show to a man who had murdered his wife, his son and then killed himself was a mistake and the WWE at least in part recognized that error in judgment by removing anything associated with the tribute. The contractual agreement the Canadian sports network The Score has with the WWE allows The Score to re-air RAW early Tuesday morning and Tuesday afternoon. By midnight Monday with major media (The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Associated Press to name only two) reporting that the police believed it was a murder/suicide The Score for reasons known only to Score officials repeated the tribute show they had just aired. The repeat aired after the news had broken. Thankfully officials at The Score decided to not air their scheduled Tuesday afternoon airing of Monday’s RAW broadcast. Unfortunately officials at The Score were inundated with e-mails from angry WWE fans who were upset the network didn’t repeat the Benoit Tribute Wednesday afternoon. That broadcast would have followed the press conference aired nationally on cable news networks in both the United States and in Canada where Fayetteville police officials released the horrific news.

The WWE reacted very quickly on their website after the news broke. The WWE’s focus of concern was on “the sensationalistic reporting and speculation being undertaken by some members of the media following the press conference held by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney. During the press conference, the investigating authorities made the following points, all of which run contrary to the media speculation that "roid rage" was a factor in the senseless murders and suicide:

The authorities stated that all drugs found in the house were believed to be legal prescriptions.
Steroids were not, and could not, be related to the cause of death (asphyxiation). Authorities had no factual basis to speculate as to Benoit’s state of mind, and rightly did not do so.

Toxicology tests have not even been completed, so there is no current evidence that Benoit even had steroids or any other substance in his body. In that regard, on the last test done on Benoit by WWE's independently administered drug testing program, done on April 10, 2007, Benoit tested negative.

The physical findings announced by authorities indicate deliberation, not rage. The wife's feet and hands were bound and she was asphyxiated, not beaten to death. By the account of the authorities, there were substantial periods of time between the death of the wife and the death of the son, again suggesting deliberate thought, not rage. The presence of a Bible by each is also not an act of rage.

WWE strongly suggests that it is entirely wrong for speculators to suggest that steroids had anything to do with these senseless acts, especially when the authorities plainly stated there is no evidence that Benoit had steroids in his body, pending the toxicological reports, and that they had no evidence at this time as to the motive for these acts.”

It’s how you craft a tale that often impacts how you’ll be remembered. Regardless of whether or not Benoit had recently used performance-enhancement drugs and the impact they have on the human body (that’s not the basis for this Insider Report), to try and steer the media away from suggestions wasn’t “sensationalistic reporting and speculation” but instead “suggested deliberate thought, not rage” suggests whomever manages that company doesn’t fully understand the ticking bomb that exploded in Chris Benoit’s mind late last week.

Thursday morning a distraught looking Vince McMahon appeared on NBC’s Today Show, doing the best he could to stem the growing storm enveloping his billion dollar business.

“This is a horrific tragedy,” he said. “It happened in pro wrestling. There’s a rush to judgment. There’s almost a hysteria around us.”

And at the least, McMahon admitted the obvious Thursday morning on The Today Show:

“Steroids may or may not have had anything to do with this,” McMahon told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira. “It’s all speculation until the toxicology reports come back.”

McMahon said that Benoit was known to the organization as “a mild-mannered individual,” adding, “there was no way of telling this man was a monster.”

“Everybody in this organization, to my knowledge, is well-adjusted family people,” McMahon said. “They go to work like everybody else. They’re performers. We put smiles on faces. That’s our job description, not to be tainted and smeared by this.”

Those are all fair points but at the same time the engineer of the billion-dollar WWE, the man who leads the company that “puts smiles on faces” has to appreciate any company would be held accountable if they employed someone who McMahon referred to as a “madman” Thursday morning on national TV.

And here’s what went wrong Thursday morning for Mr. McMahon and his billion dollar company. For a business leader at times so consumed by his image and the perception of his business, McMahon looked tired, upset and haggard Thursday. In complete fairness and understanding how else would anyone appear if their in the middle of the greatest siege in their company’s history but the optics of how terrible McMahon looked made an already bad situation that much worse. Non verbal communications is often more important than the words professionals use – and if a picture speaks a thousands words the McMahon look Thursday morning didn’t help the crisis his company is experiencing.

When you’re in the entertainment business and one of your employees does something (and it isn’t directly connected to that business) there is still a price to pay. What happened to Tom Cruise in the aftermath of his series of media explosions surrounding Cruise’s views on Sciencetology? Last August Paramount Studios ended their long association with Cruise and his production partner Paula Wagner. Cruise and Wagner reportedly walked away from their 14-year deal with Paramount that had garnered as much as $10 million per year for salaries, expenses and discretionary spending after Paramount offered the duo less than $2 million a year. And will anyone in the movie industry ever treat Mel Gibson the same way after Gibson’s racist anti-Semitic tirade aired everywhere.

The WWE has maximized the benefits of the communications age, the internet and instant communications – and now they’re about to be pay the price. Of course McMahon and WWE officials didn’t know how deeply dark a person Chris Benoit was, but the fallout is going to cost the WWE millions of dollars and a great deal more in the coming months and years.

Los Angeles based entertainment company’s David Davis believes there could be both potentially short and long term damage to the WWE’s image and brand name.

“When the company learned of Benoit’s death, it made the decision to turn the three-hour live special on Mr. McMahon into a tribute to Chris Benoit, in which the real Vince McMahon appeared at the top of each hour, starting at 6:00 pm Eastern time, to clarify the difference between the fictional death of his character and the real-life death of Benoit and his family. However, by the end of the program last night, the news media was already reporting that police officials’ suspected that Benoit had killed his own family and committed suicide. Effectively, the WWE and the USA Network had just run a three-hour tribute to an apparent murderer.

“I expect that after this, the WWE will have a difficult time going forward in terms of its ability to generate revenue (especially advertising revenue) for at least the short term. The company had already been hurting in its core sports entertainment pay-per-view business due to the fast emergence of Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“Over the past twenty years, the WWE has grown from a private, regional company periodically flirting with insolvency into a $1.15 billion global, public company. Today, on an up day in the stock market, the company has lost approximately $15 million of its market cap as of this writing. However, if these events result in significant advertisers moving away from the brand and consumers moving away from buying pay-per-view programming, it is possible that the WWE could be the latest company to see a substantial effect to its long-term value from real-life events out of its control.”

If professional wrestling ever wondered what it would be like to be talked about in the pages of Forbes Magazine the WWE has to question if they ever again want to be mentioned in the pages of one of America’s leading business publications. In a feature published Wednesday “McMahon Wrestles With Charges Of Bad Taste” the magazine’s Ruthie Ackerman alluded to many of the communications challenges the WWE is facing and will be forced to deal with in the coming days, weeks and months.

What next for the WWE, what should Vince McMahon do in terms of effectively communicating what his companies values are? The rules that exist for every company are different and in particular the WWE plays by a difficult set of rules on the best of days.

Take a gigantic step back. Close the WWE for at least two weeks (if not a month) cancel all events. Give your employees (who the WWE likes to refer to as athletes) time off to spend time with their families, make sure they heal properly.

Reach out to victims of domestic violence – use the power of your business and your brand to help get a message to battered women you have choices. As has been well reported there were serious issues in Benoit’s marriage including reports of a restraining order taken out by the late Nancy Benoit against her husband – make strides to help that community.

When the WWE does return (and there is no indication whatsoever the WWE has given any consideration to taking a break) bring back story lines (always how professional wrestling is sold in a kinder, gentler manner) for at least a few months. Better to focus on the positive than the outlandish stories the WWE has become infamous for.

The WWE wisely decided to remove Chris Benoit from their website (the edited press releases are still on the company’s corporate website). Given the profile the WWE is receiving (and therefore the traffic wwe.com is generating) Candice Michelle, Kelly Kelly and Michelle McCool doing a dog and pony show on the WWE’s website early Thursday evening was inappropriate. The women were wearing bras and panties. Save the T&A for another day and time.

In his interview with the Today Show McMahon referred to his company’s wellness program. The WWE places the contents of its wellness program on its website. The two basic principals of the wellness program: 1) an aggressive substance abuse and drug testing policy; and 2) a cardiovascular testing and monitoring program. The toll of being a professional wrestler can be terrible on someone’s body. And the travel and time commitments make it next to impossible to help raise and take care of a family. The WWE would be well advised to consider adding mental wellbeing to its wellness program. We’ll never know if the demons that drove Chris Benoit to one of the most despicable acts a human being can do could have been prevented if someone had checked his mental wellbeing.

The image of professional wrestling changed forever in a matter of a day or two last week, and none of it for the better. From reports that Benoit’s Wikipedia site was edited to reflect his wife Nancy’s death a full 12 hours before anyone knew what had taken place, to suggestions a clearly deranged Chris Benoit had allegedly used a wrestling choke hold to end his seven-year olds life, the future of professional wrestling is clearly at the edge of a cliff. What happens over the next few months will determine if a billion dollar business is going to survive and what message WWE officials send out will be a key to their viability.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: WWE.com, Forbes.com and MSNBC.com

Labels: , , , , ,