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Crisis PR scenario

By The Drum | Administrator

May 6, 2004 | 12 min read

Clockwise from top left: Charlie Mann, Graham Isdale, Matt Broadgate, Graham MacEwen

The Crisis Scenario

You are the programming director of a leading commercial television station. During the commentary of a weekend football match one of your leading sports commentators is overheard by a microphone, which he thought was inactive, using racist language towards one of the black players taking part in the match. Your switchboard is immediately jammed with calls of complaint from viewers.

However, the commentator is a highly regarded figure and ratings for his sports programmes are always amongst the highest your station records.

Personally, you agree that the language he used was wrong and offensive to viewers but he has never displayed any other signs of racism and you do not want to part company with him, as he is a valuable asset in the fight for sports viewers.

Journalists from a number of national newspapers and other TV stations pounce on the story and want immediate answers on what you are going to do about this situation.

Also, 15 years ago the same commentator was embroiled in a similar situation after using sexist language about female golfers.

You contact a close personal friend who runs a media relations company to ask for his advice on how to deal with the media in the first instance and then how to get through this crisis without permanently losing the services of your star commentator.

Charlie Mann

Associate director

Weber Shandwick

As someone who has earned a living promoting and protecting brand images and corporate reputations, in both in-house and consultancy roles, and seen at first hand the impact of a few choice (some might say wrong) words at the end of a football-related microphone, I can see both sides of the story.

Bottom line, though, is that if the commentator’s words were racist he has to go. The brand is always king and the company’s position in the marketplace must always be maintained – even at any one individual’s expense.

However, it need not be the end for the guy involved. The football and broadcasting world is one of the more forgiving environments in which to operate – just look at Beckham.

New research shows that the “Beckham brand” has barely been dented by the lurid headlines, and nearly nine out of ten 16- to 30-year-olds surveyed in a Weber Shandwick poll down south last week said their attitudes to the England football captain were unchanged by the allegations of his infidelity.

Good news for Vodafone, Pepsi, Adidas and, no doubt, a degree of consolation for the bosses at Gillette, who may have been sweating (under pressure from the US) on their £40m deal with the man who could lift the Euro 2004 trophy.

First bit of advice for the programme director would be to put the commentator “up against the wall” and place a little word in his ear in terms of professionalism and microphones!

First action will be to issue a statement distancing the company from the commentator’s actions and words. Accept his resignation making it absolutely clear the station cannot and will not accept any form of racist comment.

Then stage a news conference at which both the commentator (he will agree to participate if he wants any future with the organisation) and the company are in a position to jointly apologise for the comments and the offence caused. Outline again the actions taken (that is, his resignation), the fact that the company abhors any racist activity, and invite leading figures from the racial equality lobby to participate. Even if they do not wish to do so, the offer is a statement of the company’s position.

Next action will be to ensure that there is no further comment from the company and that none of the other programme personalities discusses the subject on air or in any other organ of the media they may be involved with (newspaper columns/radio stations, and so on). The subject is closed, action has been taken and no reference is made – no matter how flippantly.

At this stage the organisation should be ensuring that the replacement commentator is thoroughly investigated to ensure that there is NO likelihood of any similar skeletons appearing from his or her cupboard.

Then we have to meet the commentator and decide a joint approach to his rehabilitation, dissect what exactly he said earlier, confirm there are no other skeletons and start the process of getting him back on air.

His appeal on the after-dinner circuit will have been enhanced (sad, but true) and can we get him some features on his regret/life without football/the impact of those few words on his life/the damage of being branded a racist? Some inner city football initiative support would also be a start but it is not going to be a short-term fix. There is, after all, only one David Beckham, although he does seem to have the ability to be in two places at once – if the texts are to be believed!

Graham Isdale

Founding partner

Big Partnership

The situation obviously reflects that which has happened to Ron Atkinson and ITV over recent weeks. Both have done very well in averting the crisis and it has been a well-handled piece of crisis management. But I suppose the question will still remain – was he pushed or did he jump? If I was acting for the company, I would have immediately asked the presenter for his resignation, and failure of the presenter to do so would end in the termination of the contract. The reasons for this are clear-cut – he has form for doing this in the past and therefore the matter needs to be dealt with as swiftly as possible. The company needs to do as much damage limitation as possible – if it is thought to be near a scandal then it is immediately presumed guilty by association. The whole point of crisis PR is that action needs to be taken immediately for it to have the best effect. Otherwise, the bandwagon rolls in and the media starts to jump on it, which has an effect not only on customers and advertisers but also on the staff at the television station, along with the shareholders.

If the television station does not distance itself then there are serious effects – they might look as though they are bowing to public and media pressure and would therefore no longer have the upper hand. They also do not want to protract the affair, leading to more negative media coverage.

But, at the same time, they need to act with respect, to some extent, to the presenter. Yes, what he has said is totally unforgivable but, at the same time, the presenter has put a lot of service in and has been popular during his tenure. What I would probably do is give him some advice about how to handle the media – don’t deny what was said. Instead, give an unreserved apology and try to salvage some sort of dignity.

I have a mantra that says, “PR must reflect reality” – don’t put any type of gloss on it – simply put your hands up to it, own up and move on. It’s the only way that you can safely deal with a story. People won’t believe you otherwise, and you will lose any credibility that you have. I just don’t believe in putting a veneer on artificiality. If this guy is not a racist then he should maintain it but at the same time make sure that the apology is taken seriously. This will help his case in the future and should draw a line under the whole mess, both for the presenter and for the television company.

Graham MacEwen

Account director

Fifth Ring Integrated Corporate Communications

The first rule of crisis management is to admit when there has been a screw-up and this is clearly a screw-up. There is absolutely no excuse for professional media people to use the “I didn’t know we were live” excuse.

To be quite honest, our first inclination would be to test just how valuable the guy is because, in reputation terms, the station is in danger of being associated with his bigotry if they are determined to stand by him. However, if we really can’t sack him then this scenario requires an immediate statement from the TV station’s senior management condemning all forms of bigotry. This should be broadcast as soon as possible.

If they really must keep the guy then they should at least suspend him for a few months. Depending on the extent of the media interest, the station MD may like to call a press briefing to outline their actions. If this is not appropriate or practical, a recorded sound clip should be offered to other broadcast media and a proactive news release circulated.

On no account should you let the commentator speak to the press at this stage in case he has a recurrence of foot-in-mouth disease. Neither he nor anyone at the station should excuse the behaviour as that of an earlier generation or a private remark given without thinking.

After the agreed suspension period, the individual himself needs then to go through the Hugh Grant/Jay Leno/George Michael/Michael Parkinson public “confessional”. The station should find the highest-profile, appropriate programme to appear on after a decent period. On this he should appear contrite, reformed and even a campaigner against racism.

Finally, a quick check with their HR people would be good, to establish whether there are clear enough guidelines in the station’s codes of conduct and terms and conditions. After all, it should not be a question of whether the guy was heard or not but the fact that he said it in the workplace at all. Most companies would not tolerate it and all employees should be aware of that on day one – the best type of crisis management is prevention!

Matt Broadgate

Managing director

Gorilla PR

Call a press conference to say that he’s been sacked, disassociating the channel from the comments made. The press will want blood and will call for yours if you don’t give them his. The sacking will be seen as a rightful punishment, whereas his resignation is seen as a weak gesture over the inevitable. Apologise to viewers. Defend his character and mention his progressive attitude and involvement with black players as a manager, to show that he is still held in high regard by many at the station. Meanwhile, immediately replace him with the worst pundit you can find.

From his humble driveway, “Big Don” must then deliver the press statement of his life: he is very passionate about football. He does get wound up, often lost in the moment of a very highly charged game. He gets angry and as a result is prone to saying hurtful things that he doesn’t mean and later regrets (he’s got a history of it!). Spin it into an anger issue – we can all say hurtful things in anger that we don’t actually mean. These outbursts have now, clearly, become a problem that he needs to deal with personally, away from the game. He’s a victim.

Subsequently, broadcast media will unwittingly support his theory by showing a selection of numerous, yet very comical, angry clips from Don’s “Red Rage Archive”, none of which are racially motivated.

Out of the spotlight, Don must be taken on the campaign trail, visiting relevant black media titles and opinion formers, from Vibe to The Voice, from Ekow Eshun to Paul McKensie, to openly discuss racism in football. It must look low-key, a personal learning curve and fact-finding mission. Gaining trust and respect from key people in the black community, Don carries on, funding and working with inner city kids and ethnic minority groups on football training projects. Key comments, sound bites and faux paparazzi-style pictures all seep their way to the nationals in a non-staged manner to sow the seeds for an alternative perception of the man.

Now the comeback. A new, improved Don makes a much-heralded appearance on TV and radio, culminating in a chat with Trevor McDonald. He looks different. Understated. A New Don. He’s not a reformed racist, just a calmer, quieter, softly spoken man with enough experience in the black community to discuss racial issues in a more informed manner than the man on the street. He’s had time to reflect. He has learned from his experience and wouldn’t change it for the world. His great work is continuing in the inner cities and black Premiership players are queueing up to assist. He’s encouraging and helping more black players to move into football management. Now he just wants to get back to what he loves most – commentating.

Don cuts a new deal with the station where a percentage of his wage goes to his good causes. How could you refuse? It was all blown out of proportion anyway! Welcome him back in front of the cameras and you’ll be the model of righteousness and forgiveness. People are dying to get rid of the crap pundit anyway.


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