By now you have certainly heard of the issues related to the replacement refs in the NFL (National Football League).  To sum it up briefly, the replacement refs were working because the regular refs were locked out by the NFL owners over the summer of 2012 due to a labor dispute.

Some of you may be aware that the regular refs are part time, and they work full time jobs during the day.  Some are teachers, others are lawyers, and there are even airline pilots in the mix.  Even though they are part time, they do their job (for the most part) very well.  They get a great deal of training, instruction, and weekly reviews to tell them how they are doing.  The replacement refs have been brought in to referee the games, and their lack of experience has resulted in an incredible backlash against the NFL and in particular, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Backstory: There have been many performance issues related to the replacement refs; however, the culmination of errors directly resulted in two very high profile calls. These two fault calls were the deciding factor in the outcome of the games, all due to the inexpertise of the refs.  The first infamous call was during a Patriots vs. Ravens game, where a very close field goal that was kicked by the Ravens appeared to have missed to the right, but the refs called it good. The second controversial call was during the Packers vs. Seahawks game on Monday Night Football, where a Hail Mary pass was caught by the Packers defender but the refs said the receiver for the Seahawks caught the ball.

The public is so outraged at the outcome of the games that even the President of the United States chimed in via Twitter.

Brand Perception: For years the NFL has had a very strong brand, very recognizable and for the most part positive.  Currently as I write the post, it’s very clear to me that the NFL brand has a negative connotation and may not be able to return to its pre-lockout level for many years to come. In today’s super-connected world, one tiny blemish on a reputation can cause a lot more damage than it used to.

The Issue: Replacement refs have caused a great deal of harm to the brand of the NFL, and as a result have cost the organization clout and positive reputation. Allowing inexperienced team members to make important decisions that affect the entire organization is not a good idea, no matter what industry your company is in. Consumers, clients and fans in general want to believe that your company is staffed with experts and chock full of experience.

The Solution: Get the labor deal done.  End the lockout.  Speak out about the issues, without applying blame and commit to the fan base that you will make things right.  Then back it up! This advice applies directly to the NFL situation, but you can also take away an important corporate lesson from this situation. When your consumers are unhappy with the products or services you are delivering, you need to take a step back, look at the situation, and then make your consumers happy or your business will suffer. Cover-ups are impossible so it is important to have as transparent an agenda as possible and own up to your mistakes. Keeping your finger on the social pulse is easier than ever, simply by participating in social networking to find out how people feel. Not only will you be respected for accepting the responsibility for the issues, but the backlash will not be as harsh if people can see that you are taking steps to fix the issue.