Crisis communications in sport

Perhaps more than ever, the concept of trust as it relates to many of our most important institutions, professions and pastimes is the subject of intense scrutiny.

Indeed, it is everyday Australians whose faith in institutions has eroded to a critical point, driven by a virtual epidemic of corporate malpractice cases, sexual discrimination claims, and inappropriate or harmful behaviours among our elected representatives and business leaders, to our emergency services personnel, religious heads and even sporting heroes.

With this perceived, or real, ‘trust deficit’ as a backdrop, Six O’Clock’s Jim Stiliadis and Patrick O’Beirne spoke to delegates of a sports law conference in Melbourne last week about managing reputation.

Jim and Pat, who collectively have more than four decades of experience in issues management, opened the session by posing the question: Does Australia’s new-found ‘reputation agenda’ stem from an increasing number of image-impacting incidents? Or, are cases finding captive audiences through an increasingly intrusive media glare fuelled by social media and citizen journalism? According to Jim and Pat, the answer is both.

Honing in on sport, Jim and Pat suggested that the management of sporting issues and crises is different to corporate or government reputation matters due to the fact that fans have a deep emotional investment in their recreational pastime. The agency co-directors observed that while this fact brings increased profile and exposure to the issues that break in sport, it also helps clubs and codes manage their issues because, unlike disgruntled customers and voters, fans are arguably more forgiving.

Jim and Pat also took a look at the governance of sport as it relates to issues management, observing that most sporting leadership models provide for voluntary boards, with many directors taking seats to fulfil a desire to be a part of the sport. While there’s no doubting that many sporting directors have extremely strong credentials in specialist areas, does their love of their team or game infect necessary impartiality and objectivity when it comes to judgement calls on the big issues?

The conference’s audience of sporting executives and lawyers was left with one key recommendation: over-invest in preparation of issues and crises through considered planning, and engage proactively with key stakeholders as part of business-as-usual. This approach ensures brands and organisations are ready when adversity eventually strikes, and it usually sees influential voices advocate when you need them most.