By The Drum, Administrator

August 13, 2004 | 6 min read

Three adults have consenting sex. It shouldn’t be a news story. But issue an immediate and legally threatening statement denying such relationships, then eyebrows will be raised when you are (quite literally) caught with your pants down and have to sheepishly apologise to all and sundry.

But that’s not enough for the English Football Association. Throw in a deal to save the skin of the chief executive at the expense of the national manager, communicate inconsistent messages, announce an “immediate” enquiry, which will take at least seven days to produce anything, thus handing over the agenda to journalists thirsty for blood – you may as well tie a lead weight to your ankles and jump off the Kingston Bridge.

But this isn’t “Footballers Wives”. This is reality within one of the most sacred of English organisations and the crisis that now looms over the Football Association after its inability to take appropriate steps in dealing with a couple of internal relationships has tarnished the national game.

When Colin Gibson, the FA’s communications director, was contacted by the News of the World and questioned over an alleged affair between Sven-Göran Eriksson and Faria Alam, a secretary at the FA, he would have been entirely justified in dismissing the story as a private matter with no material impact on the running of the governing body. After all, they’re both grown-ups and – most importantly – single.

Instead, the FA chose to issue a legal statement that didn’t mess about. “There is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that our client and Mr Eriksson are having, or have had, a sexual relationship.”

Faux pas number one.

The FA, or any organisation for that matter, when facing a potentially delicate issue needs to think clearly and rationally and be under no illusion that, at the end of the day, the truth will out. There needs to be transparent lines of responsibility and communication in place in order to collate all the information, before calculating and presenting a response. In going on the offensive and denying that a relationship existed, they acted naively, and immediately lost all credibility and control of the agenda. Instead of killing the story in its tracks, they effectively made the private lives of FA employees a legitimate area of media enquiry.

Within a matter of days the FA retracted its legal statement, following damning evidence showing that a relationship did exist. The NOTW had got hold of e-mails Alam had sent boasting of her “extra-curricular” activities. Embarrassingly, the FA is forced to confirm that, not only had Eriksson and Alam had an affair but so had Alam, the busy secretary, and Mark Palios, the chief executive of the FA.

It is important at this stage that communications are open, concise, consistent and, most importantly, allow the organisation to take charge of the situation and control the shifting agenda. Criticism from ex-players and managers may be unavoidable but this is a time for the organisation to act in cohesion and sing from the same hymn sheet.

What you don’t want is an FA board member openly criticising the handling of the affair and being made to look “like mugs”. They launch an immediate enquiry into the matter. Convincingly, this investigation will take a week, which creates a vacuum that even Dyson would be proud of.

Colin Gibson, former Daily Mail sports editor, then allegedly tried to strike a deal with the NOTW by offering to reveal “chapter and verse” of Sven and Faria, if it refrained from publishing information on Mark Palios’ involvement with Faria Alam, revealing that the senior figure is about to undergo a trial reconciliation with his wife and revelations of his involvement will not help matters.

Faux pas number two

This was a gross miscalculation on Colin Gibson’s behalf. Admittedly, deals sometimes have a place, but this line of action must see a balance in terms of what you are offering and what you will gain. Eriksson for Palios is not a swap a journalist would make in a hurry.

This attempt at a good back-scratching session seriously backfired. You have to hope that when Colin Gibson was trying to unearth the dagger from his back he would consider in hindsight that clear and intelligent communications are essential to effective crisis management.

Sven was once subject to a barrage of criticism concerning his position of responsibility and the need to be an ambassador for the sport and the country. Now he has become the victim of it all.

Following the FA’s inquiry into the steps that led them to issue a legal statement, Sven is cleared of any wrongdoing and keeps his job and reported £5m annual salary.

Mark Palios resigns, a tragedy in itself, after achieving a considerable amount during his 13 months at the helm. Colin Gibson follows suit and Faria Alam also resigns to embark on an estimated £750,000 worth of riches to sell her story. Max Clifford negotiated a deal with ITV’s “Tonight with Trevor McDonald”, following articles that appeared in the Sunday Mail and in the News of the World, which aired earlier this week.

And so begins the process of trying to rebuild the tarnished image of an organisation that many think is more important than the government. The shenanigans at Soho Square should serve as warnings to organisations throughout the land. No matter how big or how small, each and every company should have scenario plans in place to respond to any possible threat that it could be faced with.

This clearly was not the case with the FA.

Such a plan prepares individuals for their roles and responsibilities during a crisis situation in order for an organisation to adopt a co-ordinated, intelligence-led and strategic response to control the media agenda and get the results it wants.

These decisions taken during a difficult situation are amongst the most important that will ever be made. Get it right and you will enhance the long-term standing of the company.

Get it wrong and you could be as sick as a parrot.


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