Sandra Ericson, APR, Executive Vice President, rbb Communications|Sep 19, 2023

Turning lemons into lemonade – easier said than done, right?  When I read how iconic athlete and now Colorado football coach Deion Sanders recently turned negative comments against him into a positive, I saw a valuable communications lesson. 

A quick recap:

Coach Jay Norvell (Colorado State) and Coach Deion Sanders (Colorado) faced off last weekend, Sept. 16. Prior to the game, in an interview on his weekly coaches’ show, Norvell said about Sanders “When I talk to grownups, I take my hat and my glasses off.  That’s what my mother taught me.” The implication?  That Sanders is uncivilized and uncouth, despite his accomplishments on and off the field. While he may have just been going for a little competitive trash talk, Norvell wildly underestimated the power of Sanders’ brand and his fan base.  And Sanders, on the verge of the launch of his own sunglasses brand with Blenders, was handed a prime opportunity that he maximized. 

Rather than respond to the negative, Sanders flipped the script, brilliantly and savvily – leaning into the criticism by gifting his entire team and ESPN staff with his brand of sunglasses and using the opportunity as motivation to win the game.  Within two days, sales of the sunglasses had skyrocketed (Sanders reported $1.2 million in pre-orders sales on Friday alone). 

As SB Nation’s James Dator so eloquently put it: “He’s turned a fashion accessory into a statement, one about being yourself, not apologizing, and being ready to kick some a$$.” 

We all know the first rule of crisis communications, which we actually learned on the playground – Don’t talk about anyone else’s Momma.  That’s especially true of Sanders who keeps it a family affair. He’s not only close with his mother but also with his son who happens to be the current Colorado quarterback. 

In the midst of the fun sports banter, I saw a glimpse of some other crisis principles Norvell should have considered.  

1. The Power of a Good Reputation

We always counsel clients to build relationships in the good times to aid in the bad times. Sanders’ strong reputation played a pivotal role in the public’s response to the comments. Throughout his career, he’s established himself as both a talented player and a person of integrity and charisma. People were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the positive image he cultivated. It reminds us of the importance of building and maintaining a positive reputation, which can serve as a valuable asset during challenging times. 

2. Always Come Back to Your Mission

Despite the clear business opportunity to sell more of his Blenders sunglasses, most people aren’t talking about that.  They are talking about how he used the opportunity as motivation to win – a trait he is known for.  This is authentically Sanders, and his actions cement his overall mission. In his own words, “they done made it personal.”  

3. Timing is Everything and Everything is an Opportunity

Sanders immediately took to social media to pounce on the opportunity to connect the trash talk with his sunglass announcement. He posted a video to his X/Twitter account telling his team about the Blenders collaboration while pointing out “they don’t realize they just helped me with business.”  In turn, Blenders jumped on the opportunity announcing just 48 hours after Norvell’s comment that the sunglasses were now available for pre-order. This was almost certainly sooner than they planned but they acted quickly to take advantage of the national media wave.  According to a USA Today story, Blenders took advantage of the viral moment, focusing on paid search to ensure they were coming up in searches for “Deion Sanders sunglasses” and other related terms. 

4. Know Your Enemy

While Norwell may have innocently just wanted to spark some friendly banter, he simply messed with the wrong dude without doing his research. As GQ points out, there’s precedent here saying, “Deion Sanders Is So Good at This.” We advise clients not to pick a battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel. If you’re going pick a fight, you better be able to win.  Sanders is a notoriously smart marketer and navigator of media – and his team was already the talk of college football.  CBS’ “60 Minutes” had already scheduled to air an interview with Sanders the following Sunday, now reported to be the largest audience for the show since 2021. Multiple reporters and other players have publicly labeled Novell “a fool” for picking this fight with Sanders, which has invited additional scrutiny into his history and his record. 

5. Track and Measure

Almost as critical to how you respond to a crisis or an unexpected event is how you debrief, evaluate and apply lessons learned so that you can be better prepared for the next event. Ultimately, Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes won the game, but it wasn’t the blow out everyone expected. The game went into an exciting double overtime before Coach Sanders’ son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, led the team to a 98-yard drive, culminating in the winning touchdown and 2-point conversion. 

So, did the controversy distract Sanders’ team – who should have won handedly? Or were Norvell’s comments simply the motivation needed to bring it home? 

According to ESPN, Sanders admitted there was a moment during the game that he allowed the thought of Norvell getting the best of him enter his mind.  “I said we can’t let this dude win,” Sanders said. “There ain’t no way we let this dude win. This press conference is going to be unbearable if we let this dude win.” 

My money is on Norvell learning his lesson and never messing with Sanders again. Both have since agreed it’s water under the bridge and are allowing the storm to pass – sometimes a smart crisis response strategy in its own right.   


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