Categories: Crisis management / Trust and reputations / Zurich

31 May 2011


FIFA’s Mr Blatter’s PR skills are formidable…

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.

13 responses to “FIFA’s Mr Blatter’s PR skills are formidable…”

  1. sean says:

    I agree FIFA is corrupt. But i dont agree with your assertions about the English game. You link to some webpages talking about some dark arts used in the 1950s as evidence of the FA being a scandalous institution. Poor strawman argument.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Sean, you must read the English media more often and study my links more carefully. I linked to some very recent stuff, which you might not have clicked or have just ignored. But I suspect that you must know as much as I do about the UK’s recent scandals. And, I say, the English FA is a very compromised and weak body:

    “Lord Triesman quit last night after being branded a traitor for harming England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup.”

    Read more:

  3. James says:

    I think it’s a brave assumption that Blatter is ‘exactly the man’ for the job to reform the corruption. This talk has been around for a long time and he has made no efforts. There is no real reason to believe him when he says ‘trust me’ this time.

    He is in a unique position in as you the product is bigger than the management, but I don’t think we should be using this as a text book model for the majority of CEOs – it would end in tears.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    James, well, there was no other candidate.

    The world of PR told Mr. Blatter and FIFA to grovel the way they tell all crisis-hit organisations to do so. But I say that apologise, reform and move on (ARM PR) has sold PR’s clients in the C-suite short. PRs should help leaders lead, not help them surrender their agendas to the media.

  5. Peter Walker says:

    On a plate or Blatter’s platter…

    Self perpetuating oligarchies that have little or no notion of transparency and are accountable only to some concept of a family are as time expired as rulers of nations as they are for the bodies that rule sports, pressure groups and charities. The governance structures of the FA, EUFA and FIFA as well as BUPA, OXFAM, Transparency International, GreenPeace et al are time expired and even Blatter knows it, but why should he bother.

    Of course there is always the possibility that Emirates will lead the sponsors to reform governance and extract revenge for bringing Qatar World Cup campaign into question and humiliating Mohammed bin Hammam.

    Don’t hold your breath, think instead about that magnificent body of the fourth estate, protectors of the first amendment of the world, well, anglophone sports journalists.

    If you wanted a demonstration of an inept media corps then the anglophone media pack gathered in Zurich provided it. There is clearly a new role for public relations professionals, instead of coaching and briefing corporate and institutional clients and preparing them for searching media examination it seems we now need to train the media in how to be effective in a press conference. What a debacle, no one had done any home work, where were the questions about the the bribes, fraud and successful criminal prosecutions in Switzerland against members of FIFA that Blatter and his committees have ignored.

    Where were the FA’s ‘well respected PR or media relations team’…. shouldn’t they have prepared briefs for the media .. oh sorry, forget, they are all former media people aren’t they so that explains a lot.

    There is some hope in the shape of a Swiss MP who is rightly concerned that the Swiss laws that enable the FIFA’s of this world to remain unaccountable and opaque are doing the reputation of the country no good at all. So it may be the Swiss desire to protect their country’s reputation and position as a major financial and banking centre may yet trigger reform of the laws that make FIFA and Blatter possible.

    So, come back Insight and Andrew Neal and well researched and articulated investigative journalism. If the media are going to set themselves up as the champions of sport, fair play and all that is good and wonderful then let’s see them equipping themselves at least as well as any public relations professional must do when supporting a client to brief the media.

    Meanwhile, as Blatter said there is nothing wrong with football … except that is for it being financially unsustainable, exploitative of third world youth, racist in many parts of the world and sexist almost everywhere. But as Joe E Brown said at the end of ‘Some Like It Hot’ nobody’s perfect….

  6. Jack Vincent says:

    Hey Paul. Thanks for including me on your blog list. I usually agree with your stuff, but not this one. So we agree to disagree, and I like that.

    One thing is not allowing the press to drive the story. Another thing is denying the obvious truth and being mocked endlessly.

    One might say, “Well look how FIFA is!” To that I laugh. They own the World Cup of Football for goodness sake!!! The PRODUCT has a natural gravitas that NOBODY can f#ck up. That doesn’t make Blatter a masterful marketer. It’s been successful for decades. It was a success long before Blatter slid in after kissing up to Havelange, and it will be a success for a long time after he’s gone.

    And therein lies the irony. Blatter (and his octagenarian amigos) wouldn’t be able to run a pizzeria successfully, let alone a global business in a truly competitive environment. He’d have to make smart decisions and keep clients sweet. He doesn’t do that at FIFA, the organization. This just happens because of World Cup, the property.

    FAIR PLAY IS JUST A SLOGAN. There’s a huge gap between the slogan and the reality within FIFA. MIND THE GAP:

  7. Not sure there is anything new here at all. As Peter says, another example of a self perpetuating oligarchy handling the media, critics, members and any other stakeholder in the age old manner of framing a story to suit its own aims. We’ve all been members of organizations where the rules are stacked against change and it is a classic “defence” mode to cite the process. Reminds me of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life which has a brilliant lesson in crisis management. ..

    Weak media – well that’s football for you. Too many journalists afraid to bite the hand that feeds. Despite or perhaps because of all the money, doubt there’s much real PR insight around. Did you see the interview with Ferguson last week and the PR who didn’t even know who the journo was asking questions about “he who shouldn’t be named”?

    PR for oligarchs and control freaks is a nice easy job – if you don’t care too much about acting as a liar and baby-sitter. Just bottom-feeding with the media – yes, sir, no sir.

    Not sure I agree with you that this is either an example of strong leadership or a case study for defensive PR. I’m all for appropriate response rather than knee-jerk text-book reactions. Just not sure that this is a case to hang your belief in robust PR upon though.

  8. Paul Seaman says:

    Jack, thanks for the comment and for the link to a useful piece by you.

    Yes, we disagree on this. I suggest that in the past football was much more corrupt than it is today. The history of dodgy owners, bribes and lies goes way back to the beginnings of the 20th century and even before then (not least in my beloved England). The problems today start at the national level etc… and FIFA reflects the character of the many national associations which it represents (this is one case where the rot does not start at the top: FIFA is a federal body, after all).

    Moreover, the credibility gap between reality and catchy slogans is quite common in many fields of marketing from sports claiming to be drug free (cycling) to multinational companies claiming to have gone beyond petroleum (BP). So this particular credibility gap should not shock us much.

    The key to a better future is more scrutiny from the media and fans…and success depends upon cleaning football up at the national level. That said, the game is remarkably successful and highly competitive and that suggests that it is not in a critical state of health. But the worst thing that could happen would be to let the media take control of the game’s affairs. That’s precisely what they just tried to do this week. Giving in to them would be the road to chaos.

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I’ll accept that Mr Blatter held a powerful pack of cards. However the PR crisis management gurus who hang around PR Week all recommended that FIFA should do as the media demanded. Their cry to give the media their pound of flesh is precisely what these PRs proclaim in virtually every crisis you and I have examined over the last few years – they say “never-mind the facts: grovel on demand because it is all about perception.” PR crisis management often amounts to no more than advising clients to indulge in self-denigration and ritual self-humiliation.

    In contrast, when faced by his crisis, Mr. Blatter acted like a leader should. He spoke clearly about the difficult conflicted and awkward world of football politics in an adult and refreshing style. He held his nerve under immense pressure. He’s now under notice to deliver reforms. That can only be a good thing. And, yes, I think it makes for a good case study.

  10. Agree over the normal PR response – but the test here is whether Blatter is all rhetoric (which I suspect) or genuine reform. Is it refreshing honesty or simply defensive grand-standing – we shall see!! Allowing a bit of 21st century technology into the game would be a good start – along with tackling the hideous culture which oozes from every pore of the game. Not sure he’s up for either of those aspects.

  11. Gavino says:

    A very entertaining blog Paul but, come on, Blatter’s a scoundrel and you know it! He came out fighting because he is cornered. Any genuine investigation would most likely send him to jail. He’s the Bernie Madoff of world soccer and the only thing that gives him a semblance of dignity is the seemingly more blatant corruption of his adversary. FIFA should be in the background – seen but not heard. Let’s not mistake desperation for PR tactics…

  12. Paul Seaman says:

    Gavin, I accept that Mr Blatter and FIFA have had their reputations torn to shreds by the media. Even the Swiss tabloid Blick portrayed him graphically as a hear no evil, see no evil, tell no evil monkey. But I stand by my opinion that this is an example of accountability to a body’s core stakeholders (the media are not stakeholders). The football associations from 172 out of 206 member-countries voted for Mr Blatter. The sponsors will – never mind the raised eyebrows – continue to align their reputations with football’s and FIFA’s. The fans will not lose their enthusiasm for FIFA’s World Cup. The truth is that most of football’s fans were not shocked by any of what’s been said against FIFA …fans and sponsors had few illusions to shatter about such matters, as you know etc..

    I don’t say or pretend that football is whiter than white or that FIFA sets the gold-standard for ethical behaviour. But comparing Mr Blatter to Mr Madoff is way over the top. If Mr Blatter is guilty as charged by the media, then he remains a target for somebody to prove it is true. Until such time he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    Football’s leader is the leader that it takes to lead football as it is – in reality.

    And, yes, it took guts on the part of Mr Blatter to stand his ground. It took a very determined and focused PR strategy to keep his stakeholders onside, especially given that he had enemies within from the likes of England and Mohammed bin Hammam etc..

    Mr Blatter has now promised reform and more transparency (about time, I say)…it remains to be seen whether that’s mere flannel or whether he delivers. But the pressure is on, and that has to be a good thing.

  13. […] up his house and rid himself of the rottenness, but also the poor governance, in his empire. (See the difficulties facing FIFA.) That is going to hurt. It might even bring down his own son. It is most likely going to send some […]