Our review of one of the most historic announcements in golf.
Last Tuesday, the PGA Tour made one of the most significant announcements in the history of golf. The headlines all read similarly: PGA Tour agrees to merge with Saudi-backed rival LIV Golf. The Franco team was all together when the news broke. Like a lot of people, we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Naturally, we dug into the news to try to learn all we could about what had been announced.
Now it’s a week later, and we’re still confused and trying to piece together what’s actually happening, which made us think: Was this PGA Tour announcement a success from a communications standpoint? We put our heads together to reverse engineer how this announcement was executed and think through what other brands might be able to learn from it.
The PGA Tour broke the news with an exclusive joint interview with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan on CNBC followed immediately by a press release on PRNewswire. Shortly after, we saw the news hit Twitter and breaking news headlines flooded our inboxes.
Interestingly, most of the players found out about this deal the same way as the rest of us. Players reacted with their own tweets and reporters spent the next several hours breaking stories based on the press release and player reactions – even the idea that players didn’t know became headlines.
The players reportedly received a memo around the time the news broke and a players meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. But by then, the damage had been done.
Players who were promised transparency and a seat at the table felt they had been sold out by their organization.
The players meeting was reportedly a heated and contentious discussion. And shortly following it, Monahan held an afternoon press conference to address media questions.
The next morning, multiple players including Rory Mcllroy and Michael S. Kim attempted to clarify the news stating “This is not a merger.” Okay, then what is it? At a minimum it’s evidence that the message wasn’t communicated clearly.
My thoughts after some deliberation:
– Hopefully we can shift the focus back to the RBC Canadian Open once the tournament starts
– This is NOT a “merger”
– Pgatour partially (idk how) becomes a for profit and PIF a large investor but pgatour still mostly controls how and where…
— Michael S. Kim (@Mike_kim714) June 7, 2023
What can we learn from this?
1. Bring corporate communications in early
Monahan indicated in his press conference that the communications plan was developed overnight, and suffice it to say, we’re not surprised.
This was highly confidential and as Monahan said, only a few people were involved. However, a discussion like this had to first be cleared by legal. And a good rule of thumb is that if legal is being consulted, communications should also be involved – even if it was just a single person.
Don’t wait until you have all the puzzle pieces in place to initiate a discussion with communications. It’s better to tell them the moment you pull the puzzle from the shelf and then update them throughout the entire process.
As communicators, we need time to think through every possible scenario, not to mention be ready at a moment’s notice in the case of a leak.
We are masters of “if…then.” If the conversations blow up, then our tactic is X…if the news leaks prematurely, then our response is X…if both sides agree to end litigation, then we phrase it as X…if all three come together, we phrase it as X. We don’t need to know the final decision to begin our work.
We need to be working on the puzzle in tandem to get all the pieces in the right spots. It involves analyzing and workshopping every angle and it takes time – and definitely deserves more thought than one night.
The way this was executed, the stakeholders handed communications a half-finished puzzle and said, now finish this in the next minute. Spoiler alert: it’s impossible and you end up with a disjointed picture.
They didn’t just have a day to throw together a communications plan, they had seven weeks. A preliminary communications plan could have been started shortly after the first call was made. The mixed messaging and lack of clarity may not have happened had communications been involved from the start.
We sign NDAs for a reason. Use us.
2. Be careful with messaging, and beware of “shorthand” messaging
Initially, overall the main messages seemed clear:
- The PGA Tour, DP World Tour and PIF are partnering to unify golf.
- We’ve recognized that together we can have a bigger impact on the growth of the game
- PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV will merge operations under common ownership
- The agreement ends all pending litigation between the participating parties
It all sounded good, until more time passed, and it became evident that one word seemed to have caused a lot of confusion: “merge.” That word drove the direction for all the headlines and caused a major stir with the emotions of players and fans, based on the strong stance the PGA Tour had taken against LIV for the last few years.
Unfortunately, the PGA Tour then had to back pedal and clarify that this is actually not a merger with LIV, rather a combining of operations between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV under a newly formed commercial entity. A PGA Tour spokesperson was quoted in USA Today saying “I know it’s been called a merger as shorthand, but that is not accurate.”
USA Today reported that by the end of the day Tuesday, the headline and the word – “merge” – were removed from the press release on the PGA Tour website and that The Saudi Arabian PIF behind LIV Golf was still using the original press release with the word “merge” as of Thursday afternoon.
As of the publishing of this blog, PIF still has the original press release published.
Another important message that became clearer over time was the explanation that this is a “framework agreement” with a lot of details still to be determined. This message was covered in the morning CNBC interview but didn’t make all the stories – maybe because it was omitted in the press release.
These issues may have been flagged had the communications team been brought in sooner. Regardless, the lesson here is to be very clear and intentional about your messaging and to make sure everyone is delivering it the same way to avoid confusion.
3. Deliver the largest news to all media, at the same time, in the same way
We received much more clarity from Monahan’s afternoon press conference, but it occurred more than six hours after the news broke, and by then it was difficult for him to clarify the narrative. Six hours is an eternity in today’s news cycle, which begs the question: Why not break the news with a press conference for everyone together instead of giving the first interview to CNBC?
By holding a press conference for everyone at once along with more well thought out messaging may have offered a better chance that the PGA Tour’s position was reported clearly from the beginning. Instead, the news spiraled out of control. The instant news cycle forced media to run without having clarity on their questions, which ultimately left a lot of fans with partial facts and opinions formed based on only a part of the story.
4. Internal communications is also important for controlling the message
In the short time that LIV Golf has existed, the PGA Tour has repeatedly stressed that it is a “player-run organization.” It has been a key talking point for Monahan over the past year, alongside words like “transparency.” These points helped the organization stress to players that they had made the right decision in staying with the PGA Tour rather than jumping ship for a big payday with LIV.
In an ideal world, the players in a “player-run” organization would have had advanced notice and a say in the process. But to be fair, as communicators we know that the ideal is not always possible with this type of confidential news.
At the very least, players should have learned about the agreement from leadership first – this could have been as simple as a players meeting at the same time as the announcement. Employers, whether in a professional sports league or in a family business, need to be the ones to share news with employees that affect their livelihood. Simply changing the timeline could have helped players understand and process the news, ask questions and familiarize themselves with talking points. It could have helped prevent negative player reactions from becoming a main storyline across media and social channels, and it could have helped to soften the blow for those who have supported and stayed loyal to the PGA Tour when other, more lucrative options were on the table.
5. Plan ahead for the influence of social media
The best communications plans consider all communications avenues. Social media should be considered in any communications plan, both the risks and the opportunities it presents. The PGA Tour was noticeably absent from the Twitter conversation, missing an opportunity to provide clarity straight from the source, sooner.
The PGA Tour has relied on its players to promote the game through their own social media channels, even offering Player Impact Program bonuses to the top 20 players who generated the most positive interest in the Tour. Players working to compete for that incentive amassed huge social followings (millions of collective followers) over the last few years, but the PGA Tour missed an opportunity to either try to leverage those extended audiences or minimize the negative reach to them.
Because players learned about the announcement via Twitter, they reacted with emotional tweets, which fueled the spiral. Now in addition to the media coverage problems, the PGA Tour had social amplification working against them, as golfers and the public became more upset over the news.
Had the PGA Tour’s plan included more proactive and intentional communication to players, they may have leveraged some of the players’ followings to amplify the message in a more positive way. Realistically, we know there would still have been angry players, but they may have been able to achieve more neutral player tweets rather than experience the over-abundance of negativity from their main influential assets.
Our review: double bogey
There’s definitely a lot to unpack with this announcement and we’re sure a lot more will come out over time. Unfortunately, the communications plan was rushed and the news was not communicated clearly, so we give the PGA Tour a double bogey for their execution. We were all left picking up the pieces over several days to make sense of what we heard. The good news for golf fans is Netflix’s ‘Full Swing’ was filming as the news broke, so we’ll get more clarity on what actually happened… eventually.