Frank Luntz and the Mind of the NHL Fan
Details of a focus group conducted near Washington, DC by pollster Frank Luntz on behalf of the National Hockey League were recently leaked to the website, Deadspin. The leak exposed virtually the entire focus group process including arguments in support of the NHL and its embattled commissioner Gary Bettman. It also exposed arguments against the NHL players union.
Hockey fans and others are outraged at the idea that they are being psychologically examined and tested to help the NHL break the players union. The reality is that public opinion research is used everyday on virtually every issue – it’s an essential part of any communications strategy. Given that Bettman and the NHL leadership are not well liked and have their share of communications problems, public opinion research makes sense.
As someone who has worked in electoral politics, labor disputes and professional sports, I understand the value of public opinion research. In any labor dispute, both sides are eager to sway public opinion in their favor. As crass as it may sound, focus groups are an import part of understanding what will influence fans and key audiences. Make no mistake, the NHLPA is likely testing its messages to determine how best to sway the fans – if not, they are flying blind.
Focus groups help organizations to gain a qualitative view of an issue. Typically, they produce information and insight that can’t easily be gained without a group discussion. Focus groups are particularly helpful in developing context, language and messaging. The process helps organizations determine a strategic “path to victory.”
Focus groups are also the beginning of the research process. I suspect the NHL/Luntz team held or is in the process of holding focus groups in several other hockey cities to test the same ideas. The next likely step is qualitative research where the Luntz team will use much of the focus group data in a national survey. The survey will help to fine tune the messages and lead to the development of a comprehensive communications plan.
There are several reasons to win the PR war – first and foremost is leverage. If either side can gain public relations momentum among the fans and media then it strengthens its hand at the negotiating table. We saw this with the NFL replacement referees; once public opinion collapsed on the NFL, it had no choice but to quickly get a new deal done with the NFL Referee Association.Continued on the next page