Five brand mismanagement lessons from Fifa

3rd Jun 2011

What can we learn about managing your brand during a crisis from Fifa's ongoing turmoil?

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for Fifa. Football’s governing body has had its reputation dragged through the dirt as claims of unethical behaviour within its ranks have been followed by counter-claims. The World Cup bidding process – always plagued by accusations of horsetrading by those outside of Fifa’s HQ - has also been taken to task with Qatar’s winning 2022 subjected to bribery allegations. And amidst it all, the presidential election has ploughed on despite descending into farce as the incumbent president, Sepp Blatter, stood unopposed following the suspension of his rival candidate.
Blatter has consistently dismissed calls for a restructure of Fifa and, staggeringly, refused to concede the body was in a state of crisis despite its accusations, suspensions and investigations dominating the sports pages for weeks. It is not the first time that the body has had its reputation called into question in its 100+history. Yet up to now the organisation has seemed virtually untouchable – immune to calls for change and operational transparency. But with its sponsors voicing concerns this week about the turmoil engulfing the beautiful game, Fifa is facing the very real prospect of being hit in the one place that could harm it – its funding.
Jessica Bower, project director at Sundance London, explains: "While FIFA’s corporate reputation score has plummeted with the corruption scandal, its sponsors have not seen similar declines. This indicates that sponsors are probably perceived as allied more to the ‘product’ (the World Cup) than to the corporate organisation (FIFA). The sponsors are rightly concerned to preserve the sport’s reputation, and the statements issued by Coca-Cola and other sponsors highlight their understanding of the risk that FIFA’s reputation could impact on the sport as a whole."
So with its reputation battered and bruised – arguably irreparably - and its sponsors distressed by recent events, what can we learn from Fifa’s miserable mismanagement of the situation to ensure our organisations could survive such a crisis?

1. Speed is of the essence

Content to firefight problems rather than address the causes of its problems, Fifa has lurched from disaster to disaster in recent months. Allegations of corruption emerged in October 2010 when The Sunday Times claimed two members of Fifa's executive committee offered to sell their votes in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting contest to undercover reporters. Six were subsequently banned and fined. A month later Fifa dismissed further allegations made by a BBC programme against three more executive committee members.
By the end of May, calls for an overhaul of the football’s head organisation had become deafening. Blatter, fellow presidential candidate and Asian confederation boss Bin Hammam and Concacaf president Jack Warner had all been investigated by the Fifa ethics committee, with Warner and Bin Hammam provisionally suspended pending further enquiry. An email from Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke was also leaked, claiming Qatar had "bought" hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. Qatar denied the claims and Valcke says his comments were misconstrued, but some within Fifa, such as Germany’s football chief, have demanded that the bid is re-examined.
Football fans around the world responded angrily to the revelations while the FA along with anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International urged Fifa to postpone the presidential election because of the deepening scandal. Despite sponsors including Coca-Cola, Visa and Adidas voicing their concern, the election ploughed ahead on June 1. Only after his re-election in a bizarre one-candidate election did Blatter pledge that changes would be made. However, Danish FA chief Allan Hansen called for an independent inquiry, adding: "It is beyond doubt that Fifa has been harmed over the last few weeks and months. Words are not enough."
When a crisis emerges, time is of the essence. Richard Merrin, MD at Spreckley Partners PR, believes that Fifa’s present crisis is an example of how a story will not die unless it is promptly addressed. "This has been rumbling along for months, if not years, with accusations of wrong doing, corruption and financial irregularities," he says. "It was cringe worthy watching press conferences at which the credibility of this international body was dissected at every turn.
"It should have cancelled the election of the president and launched an immediate independent inquiry. It needed to look as if it was taking action. Instead it looked like the court of Louis XVI at Versailles. There is a core lesson that when confronted with a crisis a company needs to deal with it head on. You cannot hide, you cannot run from it and you cannot hope that the problem will go away. Don’t stick your head in the sand, look as if you are actually dealing with the issue. The problem is clear: vested interests and an ancient regime. And we all know what happened to Louis XVI."
Paul Maher, director of Positive Marketing, adds: "A smart move, rather than pretending that this was a standard run-of-the-mill situation, would be to show proactivity. It could have announced a timeline for a decision that would follow an extraordinary process led by an external figurehead, preferably one with a reputation for judicial independence, such as a former international judge, who would supervise the process. It would be ideal to call all of the sponsors too and have them declare that they were 100% behind this process."

2. Accept responsibility

"Crisis? What crisis?" A refusal to acknowledge any problem or any culpability within Fifa has characterised recent weeks, culminating in Sepp Blatter’s extraordinary press conference this week when he insisted there was no crisis. Blatter brushed off suggestions that the election should be suspended and insisted that "Fifa is strong enough that we can deal with our problems inside Fifa."
When embroiled in a crisis, businesses should take it on the chin and take full responsibility, be empathic to victims if there are any, and be in control by outlining the problem and how it will be solved – rather than just carrying on regardless and hoping the problem will just blow away.
"If we think of a brand name like FIFA as a friend, then we can ask ourselves whether we would like that friend to say sorry when they have let us down. Of course we would," says Marlon Browser, CEO of HTK. "The first step when things go wrong is actually acknowledging what has happened, and doing it quickly. Don’t appear to be burying your head in the sand while you ‘strategise’ the best way to apologise. Brands simply need to ask themselves - is our public going to be satisfied with the way we have apologised? Or is it going to be seen as purely a self-serving exercise?"
"A sincere, timely and personal apology can go a long way in any valued relationship. The right communication tools are there, so there really is no excuse."

3. Communicate openly

In an unusual move for Fifa, Sepp Blatter set up a news conference on Wednesday where he appeared alone, ostensibly to address the corruption allegations. So far, so good. However, the conference descended into farce as Blatter refused to deal with the main accusations and had an angry exchange with a reporter, complaining about a lack of respect, before warning members of the media that: "We are not in a bazaar; we are in Fifa's house."
The BBC’s David Bond reported: "This was an absolutely extraordinary appearance by Sepp Blatter. Delusional, one colleague said to me afterwards. The phrase that will stick in the mind is: 'Crisis? What crisis?' - reminiscent of that famous newspaper headline during the Winter of Discontent. But Blatter is not playing to our audience, he's playing to the members of Fifa who he hopes will re-elect him. He wouldn't deal with Mohamed Bin Hammam's suspension, wouldn't talk about Jack Warner and his claims and wouldn't talk about reopening the World Cup 2022 vote."
Mandy Brooks, MD of Chazbrooks Communications, advises: "The best approach for CEOs in a crisis is to engage with company employees, stakeholders and customers as much as possible and communicate what the company situation is; whether it's good news or, especially, bad news. People can become frustrated and worried when they don't know what is going on. The more open you are, the more you will protect your brand and reputation in the long run.
"In the case of a crisis, you will need to put your hands up and admit, 'Yes, sorry - we got it wrong' and then talk through your plan for a good solution and preventative measures with a good dose of humility. Do remember all communication channels - social media needs managing and its worth investing in a small team just to monitor blogs, twitter etc to see what is being said. Brief those involved well to ensure messages are correct, consistent and clear, then the team can explain the company's position and personally allay fears.
"So remember, if you have a PR crisis – don’t panic, don’t be flippant, don’t deny a mistake."
Chaz Brooks from Chazbrooks Communications adds: "Crises happen, mistakes happen. What people want to know is that you are doing your utmost to put the situation right, that you have integrity and that you will learn from the experience and take appropriate steps to stop the same crisis happening in the future. Timely, honest and open communication is vital."

4. Lead from the top

“The ultimate ‘fall guy’ makes the statements’. We need to know you care,” says Judith Ingleton-Beer, CEO of IBA International.
Delivering a damning indictment of Blatter’s intransigence, Simon Clancy blogged: "In circumstances such as these you’d expect a man to fall on his sword. This is what good men do. When the director of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies, discovered that the university’s reputation had been tarnished in accepting £300,000 in research money from a foundation run by Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi’s son, he resigned. There was no blame to be attached to Davies yet he did the honorable thing. But not Blatter; he’s plowing ahead. Fall on his sword? Blatter’s sword seems to be made of Teflon."
BP’s (now ex) CEO Tony Hayward played a similarly antagonistic role during a company crisis, complaining that "I’d like my life back" as he attempted to apologise for the "relatively tiny" Gulf oil spill (which was still large enough to represent the worst spill in US history). This inability to empathise with the victims of the spill and look beyond Number One did not go down well with an already irate global audience.
At the time, Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, blogged: "A true leader faces facts, presents a situation fully to all stakeholders, and models accountability. A leader does not attempt to minimize the extent of a problem or promise action faster than can be delivered. A true leader sets appropriate expectations and delivers. He or she does not duck responsibility by shifting the bulk of the blame to someone else. Recently, he declared that 'I want my life back'." Mr. Hayward, it's not about you. The only consideration should be what's best for the institution and its stakeholders."

5. Be transparent


In 2007, Fifa unveiled its new £100m complex. With much of the outside of the building made of glass, Blatter has suggested that it can "allow light to shine through the building and create the transparency we all stand for." Despite such statements, Fifa is largely regarded as an organisation that could give the Illuminati a run for their money in the secrecy stakes.

More than a decade ago, the International Olympic Committee faced a similar crisis to Fifa, when the bidding process for the 2004 Winter Games was revealed to be corrupt. Eventually, the IOC reformed the bidding rules for the Olympics were changed to ensure a largely transparent process with significant oversight from the executive committee of the IOC.
Sources inside and outside of Fifa have consistently called for an independent inquiry into the allegations of corruption, with the view that an outside source would be best positioned to recommend improved governance. However, these have been always been dismissed, with any investigations being referred to Fifa’s internal ethics committee.
Only after his re-election did Blatter pledge to make changes to Fifa and its bidding process – but is it too late to repair its reputation?

Christopher Clarke of Epoch PR, explains: "While it may be difficult, often the best route for communicating a tough situation is to be as transparent as possible. You’re always better off being straight with people rather than allowing the story to trickle out with incorrect or misrepresented information. The perception of anything other than complete transparency leads to greater levels of suspicion and unease than the situation warrants. The way in which Fifa has handled its current difficulties has magnified the issues to the degree whereby the entire operation and reputation of the organisation is at risk."

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