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Deflategate: Lessons Learned for Financial Services Firms (and the NFL)

If you had not heard about the latest NFL scandal with the New England Patriots leading up to the biggest football game of the season (the Super Bowl) surely you did during some of the coverage of the game. National news took time out of their normally depressing nightly news to cover the latest developments in Deflategate. I’ll preface this story by saying I’m a Patriots fan and I’m quite used to being heckled by my friends for liking “America’s (Most Hated) Team”. However, there are many people that do not feel the same about New England regardless of the now four Super Bowl Championships they’ve won in the past two decades, their dominance in the AFC under Bill Belichick’s leadership, and with Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, at the helm (but I digress). Deflated Football

So you may be asking me, “What’s your point to this story? How possibly can Deflategate equate to lessons learned in financial services? Let me connect a few dots.

If you’re not following the story, the NFL has spent the last several weeks conducting a very thorough investigation into the New England Patriots after the AFC Championship game where they were accused of having 11 of 12 footballs “underinflated”. Immediately news of these mysteriously deflated footballs spread like wildfire on social media and the Patriots were bombarded by media and critics asking questions and lashing out calling them cheaters. The Deflategate debate raised several questions:

“Would the controversy taint the Patriots’ dynasty?”

“Would Deflategate overshadow or discredit a Patriots Super Bowl victory?”  

“Will these allegations tarnish Tom Brady or Bill Belichick’s reputation and keep them out of the NFL Hall of Fame?”  

Message to the New England Patriots: The Importance of Managing Reputational Risk

While the investigation is still ongoing and no one has been found guilty of purposefully deflating the teams’ game balls, these allegations surrounding the Patriots have potentially tarnished their reputation with outsiders and maybe with league officials. While you could point fingers at Bob Kravitz for leaking the story and portraying the Colts as sore losers or Roger Goodell for how the investigation has been handled, ultimately this falls on the shoulders of Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

What has been the effect on the Patriots organization as a result? The perception of the organization’s trust-worthiness and question of whether this potential rule violation compromises the integrity of the game has resulted in reputational risk. So what exactly is reputational risk and how can financial firms relate to managing risks similar to what the Patriots are facing?

Reputational risk is defined as a risk of loss resulting from damages to a firm’s reputation, in lost revenue, increasing operating, capital or regulatory costs; or destruction of shareholder value, consequent to an adverse or potentially criminal event even if the company is not found guilty.

Since, a bank’s business model is primarily built on public trust, it’s essential firms avoid risks that can undermine trust and potentially result in financial loss. Similar to the Patriots, financial firms need to have a framework in place to help identify, escalate, and resolve reputational risks that may arise from business activities of the bank.

Here are 5 keys to managing reputational risk based on the exercise the Patriots have gone through with Deflategate as the organization and certain individuals were forced to defend themselves:

  1. Oversight at the executive level. Just like it is Robert Kraft’s job to uphold the reputation of the New England Patriots, so too is it important to have strong board oversight when it comes to risk oversight. When managing a financial firm’s reputational risk, it’s important for executive management to be alert for behavior that can lead to ethical breaches or taking risks beyond their risk appetite.
  2. Effective communication and brand building. Similar to what football fans expect of the Patriots’ players on and off the field, clients expect financial institutions to live up to their brand promise. Messages the press, regulators or internal sources can deliver can have an impact on the brand. As we’ve seen in recent bribery and corruption cases, as well as the impact of major data breaches can have on a bank’s customers. Financial institutions need to have a communication plan in place and spokesperson assigned to openly communicate to customers, regulators and media during situations where a company’s market value is threatened as a result of reputational risk.
  3. A strong culture of compliance. In the case of Deflategate, if any wrongdoing on the part of the Patriots occurred (locker room attendant or Brady), could potentially tarnish the brand’s reputation. As the head coach, it’s Belichick’s duty to uphold and deliver a strong “tone at the top” and assess whether or not certain behaviors could potentially undermine the way he coaches the team and the values he stands for. The need to focus on values serves as the foundation for sustaining the reputation of your financial institution. Encouraging employees and other stakeholders to uphold and abide by these values is a critical component to managing reputational risk.
  4. A commitment to quality. During this league investigation, it was evident that the speculations had a deep and personal impact on Tom Brady. He commented during numerous interviews his feelings were hurt. Brady, and the Patriots organization, have done a lot to advance the game of football for the league, so for these rumors to surface leading up to potentially their fourth Super Bowl Championship it was likely a hard pill to swallow. From an industry perspective, there were many lessons learned from the recent financial crisis. As banks embark on their post-crisis journey rebuilding consumer trust, it is important to understand and have a commitment to quality. This can encompass day-to-day interactions with employees, partners, regulators and other stakeholders to having sound public and financial reporting.
  5. The need for internal controls and policies. Belichick has probably learned an important lesson with this whole situation. He openly said he now knows more about the rules around pre-game processes for preparing footballs and officials approving the balls (probably more than he cared to know). As Belichick discovered in their own internal investigation and research, there may be a number of variables that could have affected the PSI of the balls – weather, how they prepare the balls, testing them in a controlled environment, etc. Clearly, having a strong operational focus and control environment are vital components to managing reputational risk. For financial institutions, knowing how to respond to a crisis, who should be speaking to the media, understanding the importance of transparency with regulators, stakeholders and customers, as well as having a plan of action to help mitigate and manage reputational damage and financial loss, are all important steps to take.

Message for the NFL (and Regulators): Ensuring Compliance of Rules and Regulations 

Just before the Super Bowl on Sunday, the news broke that the NFL had neglected to record the actual PSIs of the Patriots’ game balls. What did that mean for Roger Goodell and Wells’ Deflategate investigation? It means a lot when it comes to having irrefutable evidence to convict the Patriots of purposely deflating the footballs. The balls are simply “approved” or “disapproved” before the game. In other words, the NFL is taking the referee’s word that they were set to 12.5 PSIs. It wasn’t clear if the balls were just slightly under-inflated due in part to a change in temperature (if at all) and that won’t sit well in the minds of many.

Here are 3 keys to managing reputational risk from a regulatory agency’s perspective and how financial institutions play a role in helping to shape relationships with regulators:

  1. The need for sound policies and procedures. As we learned in the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the ramifications of loose lending requirements, the ensuing credit crunch, financial bailouts and a lack of checks and balances across the industry are still being felt. Goodell has likely realized that the NFL and the competition committee will need to take a good hard look at the pregame football procedures. The impact this had on an organization illustrates the need for documented evidence and audit trails to uphold the integrity of game and for the sake of all parties involved. This can also be translated over to the goals of a financial institutions’ enterprise risk management practices, regulatory compliance processes and reporting, as well as how this is communicated to a bank’s board of directors.
  2. The need for complete transparency. One of the biggest complaints from fans and Belichick was the lack of open communication and transparency from Goodell regarding the Wells investigation. By Monday the media was drilling Belichick with questions and repeatedly he told reporters to ask the NFL because he didn’t have the answers nor did he have an explanation as to how the balls became deflated. From a governance perspective, it is important that regulators are openly communicating regulatory requirements and expectations to banks, especially when reputation damage or financial loss occurs as a result of regulatory fines.
  3. The importance of sound regulatory relationships. In the wake of the Deflategate controversy, New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, demanded an apology from the league should the organization be found not guilty of violating any rules. In a statement, Kraft said he was disappointed in how the matter has been handled and reported upon. They expected hard facts rather than circumstantial evidence leaked to drive the results of the investigation. The relationship between the team owners and the NFL Commissioner is critical to the league’s growth. While Roger Goodell may deserve a lot of the credit for the NFL’s growth the past few years, the relationship he has with many of the league’s owners, players association and fans can lead to reputational risk. The same can be said for maintaining a healthy relationship with regulators in the financial services industry. A top-down approach (driven from the board level) to developing and maintaining sound relationships with regulatory agencies will help build trust and confidence, and ultimately, enable you to not only meet the regulators’ perspective and mission, but help you achieve your business’s goals as well.

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Elizabeth Dias

Elizabeth Dias is an experienced technology marketing strategist focused on the financial services and retail industry at Perficient. With over nine years of experience as a professional business-to-business (B2B) marketer, Elizabeth is knowledgeable in technology strategies for the financial services industry focusing on mobile banking and payments, data analytics, and enterprise information management. She also closely follows the fintech community as well as tech trends in social and digital, and is also an active blogger and thought leader on Twitter (@techmktggirl).

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