Inside A Secret NHL Focus Group: How A Top GOP Strategist Is Helping Hockey Owners Craft Their Lockout Propaganda

You're going to hear a lot about "shared sacrifice" from the NHL in the days and weeks to come. That's the word from inside a secret emergency PR focus group, in which a top Republican Party strategist tested pro-ownership messages on a captive audience of hockey fans. One of those fans shared the documents with us, for a sneak preview of the propaganda campaign the NHL will be unloading on the public as the lockout drags on. Here's a look at the bullshit on the menu before the league serves it to you.

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"When I say 'the NHL,' what's the first thing that comes to mind?"

That's how 30 people were greeted as they filed into a comfortable, well-lit room in a nondescript office building in a DC suburb Friday evening. They were there not because they were genuinely eager to give their opinions on the lockout, but because they were being paid—$100 for three hours of their time, three hours' worth of feedback to help the NHL shape its message to get the public back on its side.

As the lockout claimed its first games last week, the NHL hurriedly turned to the experts on shaping public debate: Luntz Global, the multinational market research firm that proudly proclaims, "It's not what you say, it's what they hear." CEO and founder Frank Luntz is one of the Republican Party's chief strategists, and he appears regularly on CBS and Fox News as an analyst. But his biggest impact has been behind the scenes. He's played a key role in framing the GOP's message over the years. When global warming was recast as "climate change," that was Frank Luntz. When the estate tax became a "death tax," that was Frank Luntz. When the Affordable Health Care for America Act was held up as "a government takeover," that was Frank Luntz, too.

Luntz Global doesn't restrict itself to politics. When UFC wanted to figure out how to get fans to attend events instead of just ordering them on TV, Frank Luntz personally handled the research. When the NFL, facing its own lockout last summer, wanted to pin the blame on the players, Frank Luntz personally ran the focus groups. And in Bethesda, Md., last Friday, it was Frank Luntz who greeted the 30 attendees who had been gathered to discuss how the NHL can better present its case.

The research group was rushed into being, as far as Luntz panels go. Usually it will take two weeks from the call for participants to the actual study, to make sure the group is a representative sample—in this case, of average hockey fans. This time, with the lockout situation fluid and the NHL apparently desperate to hone its message, the process was completed in just two days. Still, representative it was—of the 30 people, 75 percent were men, and all but three or four were white. But that's why Luntz Global is paid tens of of thousands of dollars per group.

After being asked to rate how sympathetic they were to owners vs. players, the participants were given a packet to complete. Photographs of the entire packet can be found below. Here's some of what they were asking:

• "Which of the following statements about the owners and their position in the labor dispute makes you feel most negative about the owners?"

(Sample statements included "The owners designed the agreement that they are now forcing the players to change" and "NHL owners spent the summer signing star players to massive, career-long deals and now want to undo those contracts.")

• "Which of the following images make you miss hockey the most?"

(Sample images included a [Derek Boogaard!] fight, the Winter Classic, a playoffs logo, and a shot of cheering Capitals fans.)

• "Which following statements about revenue sharing do you agree with the most?"

• "Select which of the following paragraphs are the strongest and most persuasive at describing the goals of the NHL labor negotiations."

• "Select which of the following paragraphs are the strongest and most persuasive at describing the importance of reaching a labor agreement."

After spending about a half-hour on the packet, the discussion began. With the room packed with microphones, and Luntz Global staff and most likely a league rep watching from behind a one-way mirror, Frank Luntz did what Frank Luntz does the best—focus in on the incredibly specific terms and concepts that have the most impact.

Luntz's patented "dial testing" allows for instant response. As the moderator speaks or a video is shown, participants use a dial in front of them to register positive or negative responses that can be mapped down to the second. In the NHL group, a series of old NHL commercials were shown to figure out what fans respond to the most. There were ads for the Winter Classic, ads from the "History Will Be Made" series; there was a viral video of Alexander Ovechkin pranking Sidney Crosby. According to one participant, the spots that tested the best were the ones that showed players' human sides—specifically, the 2010 Stanley Cup "No Words" commercial.

Then, the focus group watched a series of televised speeches from players, owners, executives, and the commissioner himself. From the room's reaction, and Luntz's follow-up questions, it was clear that the group did not have a favorable impression of Gary Bettman. "A New York lawyer," one participant called him. Jonathon Gatehouse's Bettman bio points out how many times this specific phrase has been leveled at the commissioner, usually with the unspoken descriptor "Jewish." As if to hammer this point home, one focus group participant said: "I don't like him. He reminds me of Woody Allen."

Deputy commissioner and chief legal officer Bill Daly tested much better. He was seen as more "blue collar."

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Luntz Global bills itself as leaders in "language research, creation, and innovation," and language is at the forefront of Frank Luntz's strategy. (Words That Work is the title of his book.) After a discussion or a video, Luntz would disappear behind the one-way mirror, presumably to check the results of the dial testing. Then he would re-emerge, and ask participants to listen to him give a speech as if he were an NHL executive. His speech would use the key terms that rated well with dial testing, and repeatedly hammer them home.

From the content of these speeches, one participant gleaned the phrases and concepts the NHL might use going forward. The league is eager to portray individual players as not in step with the union, claiming that the majority of them don't believe or don't buy into the rhetoric used by Donald Fehr and NHLPA leaders, and that they just want to play hockey. "The players are not the enemy," the NHL may very well tell you. "The union is the problem."

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."

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UPDATE: Frank Luntz responds:


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