Crisis communications in football – Mason Greenwood, Luis Rubiales and Nike

Luis Rubiales I will not resign speech photo on PR Futurist crisis communications blog post.

The last week has seen football (or soccer for our US friends) engulfed in three extraordinary crises.

Manchester United’s handling of the Mason Greenwood issue was rapidly eclipsed by the appalling behaviour and communications of the Spanish football association. Meanwhile Nike didn’t want to feel left out so decided to just do it and create its very own crisis, just because it could.

Two of the crises are about serious and highly emotional issues. The ‘act’ part of a crisis response is always about doing the right thing. But that is always easier said than done as it requires internal consensus within the organisation to decide what the ‘right’ thing is. That’s one reason why it’s often helpful to have outside counsel or advice as it is too easy for those closely involved to get wrapped up in the detail and their interests and beliefs. An external advisor can ensure that there is always an outside perspective to remind people that different stakeholders and audiences can have different perspectives and opinions on the same issue.

Manchester United and Mason Greenwood

In Manchester United’s case its crisis communications plan was leaked to Adam Crafton of The Athletic. Crafton talks about it on The Newsagents podcast. It doesn’t sound like the plan contained anything incendiary and it was just what you’d expect to be in a crisis comms plan. It identified stakeholders and categorised them as positive, negative or neutral. It had key messages and lines to take for spokespeople. It had advice on handling media, and on how photos should be used.

All of this and more is what we would cover and help with when helping clients to navigate a crisis or issue. What is more intriguing is that the crisis communications plan was leaked. It’s something we always advise clients to be mindful of and to adopt processes to minimise the risk.

Earlier Adam Crafton had an XTwitter spat with Manchester United after it released a statement to all media in a response to a question that he’d asked. He took umbrage that the club effectively ruined his exclusive.

In the same XTwitter conversation I made the point that this is a well-established tactic for organisations being attacked (or investigated… it all depends on your perspective) by investigative journalists. It enables the organisation to get on the front foot and control the narrative by releasing the story themselves. It’s not a tactic I’d recommend all the time as it has to be balanced with the risk it will damage relationships with the journalist or media outlet. I last wrote about this crisis communication tactic in April 2012 when it was used to thwart an attack by the Sunday Times Insight Team.

Without knowing the full inside story of what went on at Manchester United it’s hard to say how well or badly the club handled the communications. From the outside it looks like the club should have acted sooner to sever ties with Greenwood, but we don’t know all of the details of its relationship (or contracts) with a player who had been on its books since he was seven years old. This means the club also had a duty of care to him and other employees and colleagues.

Luis Rubiales and the Spanish FA

This weekend the Greenwood affair has been eclipsed by the complete meltdown of the Spanish Football Association. The saga starts with Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish FA, kissing Jenni Hermoso on the lips after the Spanish team won the Women’s World Cup. Since that moment the issue has continued to spiral. It is the Spanish FA’s appalling response to what happened that has made it such a big story and kept it in the news cycle.

Usually, I’d hesitate to give crisis communications advice without knowing the full inside story. Misconduct by a CEO or leader is always a challenging situation. They are the ones that call the shots and give the orders. However, everyone works for the organisation. It is the organisation’s best interests that should be paramount. Not the best interests of the leader. This presents a challenge when those interests diverge as dramatically as they have in this case. It is even more complex in membership organisations where there are ‘executive’ staff who are paid to run the organisation and governance by membership via boards, committees. councils etc. Sometimes full-time executive staff are elected to their paid positions by the members.

The communications and legal team should be putting the interest of the Spanish FA and Spanish football first. Their primary duty is not to protect Luis Rubiales, no matter how much he thinks it is. However, that is easier to say than do when they are doubtless facing personal pressure for him and other colleagues they work with and report to.

A textbook response when an individual or organisation does something wrong, either deliberately or by mistake is to acknowledge what has happened, apologise and then fix it. The Spanish FA doesn’t appear to have done any of these things. The ‘fix it’ can take numerous forms and doesn’t necessarily mean those who did something or made the mistake are doomed. If the apology is genuine and if the steps taken to fix it are sufficient then they can survive. The fix it should always include steps to help ensure whatever the original problem was doesn’t happen again.

Instead, the Spanish FA doubled down and at an extraordinary general assembly a rambling Rubiales repeatedly ranted he wouldn’t resign. Things then went from bad to worse as the Spanish football federation has threatened to sue Jenni Hermoso for lying and defamation. It has also threatened to sue the women’s football players who signed a letter in which they refused to play for their country as long as Luis Rubiales remained in his post.

FIFA, football’s global governing body, has reacted by suspending Luis Rubiales. FIFA isn’t immune to its own scandals and has frequently been at the centre of its own crises. Disclaimer, for transparency I’ve provided crisis communications training for the comms lead of a FIFA vice president.

The Spanish FA’s action (or inaction) has fueled a tsunami of opposition that has already damaged the Spanish FA. Whatever the outcome of the threatened legal action it is unlikely to trump the way people already feel. Even if the Spanish FA eventually does the right thing, people will always remember how much it got wrong first.

Maya Angelou quote on PR Futurist about crisis communications.
Photo by Talbot Troy – originally posted to Flickr as Maya Angelou, CC BY 2.0

Because of how the Spanish FA has made people feel, the only conceivable way to start rebuilding its reputation is for Rubiales to go.

Nike and the goalkeeper’s jersey

Nike statement Mary Earps statement on PR Futurist crisis communications blog post.

Manchester United and the Spanish FA both found themselves inside actual crises they had to react to. In contrast Nike decided to just do it and create its very own homegrown crisis.

England’s Lionesses did the country proud by making it to the World Cup Final. Men, women, young and old celebrated their success. The nation wept for joy as England goalkeeper Mary Earps was named the best goalkeeper at the 2023 Women’s World Cup and awarded the coveted Golden Glove.

Throughout the land people rushed out to buy a replica of her jersey… or rather tried to as kit sponsors Nike didn’t sell one. Instead of living up to its slogan of ‘Just do it’ and making one Nike reacted to fans with contempt. Its badly worded and patronising statement dismissed their desire.

The mistakes in the statement might be tiny but when a company the size of Nike is managing a crisis it’s reasonable to assume it cares enough to at least proofread its own statement.

Predictably Nike was forced to back down and now will manufacture the shirt for fans who want to buy it.

Need help with your crisis communications?

If you need help with creating or updating your crisis communications plan and assessing your reputational risks, then please contact me at Stuart Bruce Associates. In the meantime, you can get some tips by watching this video of a webinar I did last year for the PRCA’s Sports Group about crisis communications in sport.

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