So, the scandal-ridden English FA accuses the scandal-ridden FIFA of corruption. The media are calling for Mr Blatter’s head on a platter. PR Week’s PR “experts” are urging FIFA to cringe and apologize, reform and move on. (What we call ARM PR.) Meanwhile, Mr Blatter asks, crisis, what crisis?
Here’s what Mr Blatter had to say at a press conference yesterday to his critics who were calling for his re-election to be delayed:
“Football is not in a crisis, only some difficulties… If governments try to intervene then something is wrong. I think Fifa is strong enough that we can deal with our problems inside Fifa… If you see the final match of the Champions League you must applaud… We are not in a crisis. We are only in some difficulties and these will be solved inside our family.
“The executive committee of Fifa was very pleased to receive the report of the FA regarding the allegations made by Lord Triesman at the House of Commons… We were happy that we can confirm there are no elements in this report which would even prompt any proceedings.
“If somebody wants to change something in the election or in the congress of Wednesday, these are the members of Fifa… This cannot be done by the executive committee, it cannot be done by any authorities outside of Fifa – it’s only the congress itself that can do it. Congress will decide if I am a valid or non-valid candidate.”
Spoken like the bold realist and constitutionalist. Very good “stag-at-bay” stuff. I also thought Mr Blatter was brilliant to say that he wanted to sort out governance - especially on the pitch, and then in his committees. First things first, he implied.
I know: he clearly lost his rag at yesterday’s press conference. He’s an old-style Swiss apparatchik. He is sometimes prone to control-freakish outbursts when faced by a hostile crowd. His PR advisers need to drill in to him that he must keep hold of his statesman-like mask in such situations. But, overall, it was a very good performance.
His down-to-earth frankness was admirably refreshing. He made it crystal clear that he is, at bottom, accountable to his members (call them his core stakeholders). They have procedures and methods, which he is following, for handling elections of FIFA officials. Only his members, not the media or British prime ministers or the English FA, can unseat him or set the agenda.
Mr Blatter was surely right to say that he dealt with the executive committee members the world’s countries sent him. It was, however, a politically risky remark for him to make. In an ideal world, it was a statement of truth that would have been better coming from someone else. But it wasn’t an ideal world for Mr Blatter yesterday, and I guess he couldn’t hold himself back.
The really good news is that for once the media have not re-set the main agenda; they have not been allowed to take control. Indeed, my beloved British media lacked grace and wisdom perhaps especially because they realized that they were going to lose this battle against him. They behaved liked spoiled rats robbed of a feast. I say they are in denial about the realities of the game. Anyway, it was nice, solid stuff, a glimpse behind the mask.
The truth is that football’s reputation (here I mean its popularity) does not depend on FIFA’s reputation (here I mean its squeaky-clean image) so much as on FIFA’s competence to manage big events and the game’s general affairs. The fact is that FIFA does a good job of managing both.
It is the product that’s FIFA delivers that is loved, not FIFA. And, yes, like the referee, FIFA sometimes unavoidably becomes the center of attention and that’s tough.
But in the eyes of the fans, the owners of football clubs and the game’s administrators are a necessary evil. The UK has many club owners who could be considered dodgy, but their money and enthusiasm are more than welcome in the game. Anyway, our English FA hardly sets a shining example of competence that would give it any moral authority over FIFA – see here here and here.
As for sponsors such as Adidas and Coca-Cola, they are not dumb. Sponsors know all about football’s quirks. There have been no surprises. Their recent tut-tutting to journalists is humbug. It will come to nothing because the likes of Coca-Cola and Emirates need the game as much as it needs them.
Of course there may well be a case for reform. Like the EU, the UN, the Olympics and other international bodies, FIFA is a candidate for corruption and for pork barrel politics. Corruption and manoeuvres are always a risk with federal systems where the periphery sends representatives to the centre. Corruption also thrives in situations in which big money, power and reputations are at stake but where there is little scrutiny.
FIFA has a major hand in how a big pot of money is spent and where it is spent. Naturally, FIFA has many supplicants. And, yes, there’s been poor oversight by media and member countries over many years.
It is also true that the British media, which are now screaming loudest at Mr Blatter, are always more agressive than any other when they smell a story. They have a courageous history of tracking down malfeasance in their own abrupt, sometimes rude manner. They are rightly feared by plenty of international bodies which are used to a complacent press.
Still, and contrary to what the British and other media say, Mr Blatter may be exactly the man to put FIFA right, provided he understands how to get the Corporate Governance and scrutiny right in future. Of course, I’m presupposing that he is good at this job, but my gut says he is. He probably knows where the bodies are buried. Besides: one was hardly ecstatic about the main rival candidate, Qatar’s Mohamed Bin Hammam.
I don’t say he’ll make either FIFA or himself lovely or loved, but they may both survive and do pretty good work.
Here’s my parting message:
Are you listening CEOs and PR gurus in crisis-hit organisations? Mr Blatter has shown you all how to come out fighting and win by sticking up for reality and by repelling media freeloaders from taking control of his ship. He won’t be bullied no matter how big the headlines get decrying him and his organisation.
The lesson from this struggle is that firms and institutions don’t have to let the media take control of the agenda during a crisis…. all it takes to win is some PR nous and some balls.