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2012 NHL Lockout: Luntz Focus Group Reveals NHL PR Strategies

The details of a NHL focus group have been leaked, with the NHL apparently gearing up to find the best way to turn public opinion against the players.

Rich Lam - Getty Images

A bit of some breaking news on Monday regarding the current NHL lockout, but not in the way that most of us would like. Deadspin got a hold of some very interesting information and documents and published them on Monday, revealing a focus group tasked with discovering the best way to approach fans and sway popular opinion back in the direction of the NHL.

The NHL turned to Frank Luntz of Luntz Global for the research, a firm that has had a direct hand in the PR strategies for the GOP as well for the UFC and NFL in recent years. They specialize in determining the best method for "wording," how the phrasing of certain terms and public statements can have very different outcomes even if one is essentially saying the exact same thing as another.

They accomplish this through a patented method of focus groups, determining how a certain group of people and demographic might react to certain phrasing or information. After all, according to Luntz, "It's not what you say, it's what they hear."

The focus group consisted of 30 people in what was apparently a rather rushed panel as the NHL gears up for what will apparently be a shift in PR strategies. The NHL has, until now, denied that it cares about the PR "battle" with NHLPA and their statements and actions until now have proven that. The fans and the media are firmly on the side of the players and the NHL is looking to change that; having public opinion away away from the players will likely help get the union moving in a direction that is good for the league.

The details of this focus group were leaked to Deadspin, with photos of the entire questionairre being published. You can see the entire thing here.

What stands out the most about the panel is how the NHL is obviously trying to make it seem as if the lockout is not as much the fault of the owners and the league as everyone seems to think right now.

From the article:

As for the owners' slogan, one laughable phrase kept coming up: "Shared sacrifice."

"Maybe we asked for too much at first," Luntz's mock-NHL-exec speech went, "but we're willing to give. The NHLPA has to be willing to give as well, if we're going to give the fans back their hockey. There's no way we're going to do this without both sides bringing something to the table."

The NHL is losing the publicity war. While most fans categorize the negotiations as the rich vs. the richer, there's almost no sympathy for Bettman and the owners for promulgating their third lockout in 18 years. That's a perception they're desperate to change. While concessions will come at the bargaining table, the court of public opinion will dictate which side feels the most pressure to compromise. And, of course, when hockey does come back, the league doesn't want fans to feel so bitter that they stay away from the game. That's where Luntz's research fits in. Most fans, ignorant to the ins and outs of revenue sharing and the like, just want hockey back. It's within the league's power to win the PR war, and portray the NHLPA as the villains behind the work stoppage.

As the research session came to an end, the group was asked to respond again to the first question from their packets. On a scale of 1 to 10, whom did they side with, players or management? One participant gauged the mood in the room, and spoke with his fellow guinea pigs afterward.

"No question," he says. "The group had a much better opinion of the owners.

Shared sacrifice. The NHLPA has stated several times they are willing to discuss lowered player shares of overall revenue if the owners and the league were willing to increase sharing between franchises. It's something the league has apparently been holding off the table in an effort to get the players to break first. The notion of shared sacrifice is one that is extremely interesting to hear coming from the league's side of things.

So, exactly, does all this mean? Personally, I'm not exactly certain.

It certainly seems to have hit a very touchy nerve with the hockey media and fans likely won't take too kindly with the realization that every single thing the NHL is saying has been hand picked to manipulate the emotions and views of the people that love this sport the most. However, to pretend that this sort of PR approach doesn't happen all the time, in every single business around the world, is a bit naive.

That being said, the NHL's apparent strategy moving forward being leaked is certainly damning. If we know for a fact that we are going to be manipulated before the fact, then said manipulation is less likely to occur. The problem, however, is that while this news is certainly getting a lot of attention I wonder just how much sway it will have with the "casual fans" -- the fans that the NHL is certainly targeting with this specific focus group.

Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy seems to think this change in PR strategy is a good thing, that the NHL is apparently gearing up for what will happen when significant negotiations begin once more. The NHL and NHLPA are set to meet again this week in Toronto, although it is unknown whether the key economic principles being debated will even be discussed.

And in case you didn't already know, this panel shows just how un-trustworthy anything stated by the NHL or NHLPA is right now during negotiations.

It is also clear that, just like in 2005, the NHL is attempting to "break" the union through the court of public opinion. By stating that there are individual players that do not like or want the lockout, that it's not the players to blame but the union, then the NHL can hopefully swing things back in their favor again. They might even create some doubt among the players as well.

Whatever the case, hockey isn't being played and the NHL is spending a massive amount of money to see what the best PR strategy to "spin" the lockout might be. Meanwhile, games are not happening and more and more people are losing actually significant paychecks.

But at least we have focus groups.

Be certain to read the full Deadspin report here.


Frank Luntz posted an official response to the leak on his Twitter account:

Material from a focus group I conducted was made public earlier today in an attempt to discredit efforts by the NHL to reach an agreement with the players on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The research was no different from what I and others in my field have done for sports steams, sports leagues, and players' unions for many, many years.

The objective: to understand exactly what fans think and precisely what they want. In this case, the fans were very clear: they want the teams and the union to reach an agreement quickly so that they can get the hockey they want and deserve.