How to save a PR own goal

Walter De Gregorio, FIFA Director of Communications and Public Affairs, addresses the media during a press conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)
Walter De Gregorio, FIFA Director of Communications and Public Affairs, addresses the media during a press conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)
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As Fifa attempts to fend off a PR disaster in the wake of allegations of corruption, Chris Bond looks at how to deal with a scandal when everything kicks off.

I DOUBT whether many people would want to swap places with Walter De Gregorio right now.

At the start of the week most of you probably hadn’t heard of Fifa’s director of communications and public affairs, unless you happen to be a football reporter.

But this changed on Wednesday when the world’s media gathered in Zurich at Fifa’s headquarters to hear the organisation’s take on news that Swiss authorities had arrested seven football officials as part of a US investigation into corruption claims.

The man tasked with putting a positive spin on it all in front of the world’s media was De Gregorio, who said it was Fifa who initiated the World Cup investigation, separate to the US one, and that they “welcome this process.”

His main message was “Today is a good day for Fifa”. Really? If that’s the case I’m not sure we want to see what a bad one looks like.

It would have been interesting to stand in his shoes, just for moment, to see the collective dropping of jaws among the banks of journalists as he uttered those words. Crisis? What crisis?

But just as many politicians have found to their cost, De Gregorio’s attempt at putting a positive spin on such a damaging story in front of a room full of reporters was never likely to work. And this is, no matter what spin Fifa’s PR team tries to put on it, a hugely damaging story.

Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s beleaguered president, made a statement yesterday afternoon saying there was “no place for corruption in football”, adding that he couldn’t be held responsible for the scandal. However, his words have done little to repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation which has been tarnished in the minds of many people during recent years.

But what should Fifa, and others who find themselves on the wrong end of a scandal or PR disaster, do to try and fix it?

Alan Stevens, a media trainer and crisis management expert, says the first step is to address what he calls “the elephant in the room”. Something he says Fifa is failing to do. “You have to address the main complaint rather than brushing it aside, and they’re not addressing the main issue which in this case is allegations of corruption.”

He believes the only chance Fifa has of getting on top of the story would be if a respected independent investigator who has no links with the hierarchy of football’s governing body, was brought in to clean things up – but even this might be too late in some people’s eyes.

Stevens, who runs www.mediacoach.co.uk, says there are several crucial steps any business or organisation needs to take when faced with a potentially damaging story. “The first thing is to acknowledge you’ve got a problem. Next you have to take control of the crisis and make sure that you are the centre of information, and thirdly you have to respond to the complaints being made.

“If something is wrong then it’s better to hold your hands up and say that you made a mistake. You have to address the problem as quickly as possible.

“It’s the same in politics as it is in business, people can accept a mistake it’s the cover-up that causes the problem. It’s the attempt to obfuscate that people get really angry about.”

Some people, though, are the architects of their own misfortune. A meeting of the Institute of Directors may not usually make the front page, but Gerald Ratner’s speech in 1991 was pure poetry. “We also do cut glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray, all for £4.95,” Ratner told a soon-to-be bemused audience.

“People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say because it’s total crap.” Notoriety quickly followed, along with a loss of profits totalling £122m. Ratner later said he hadn’t expect to be reported and that his remarks were not meant to be taken seriously, but by then the damage was done.

Having a bad news story is one thing, but handling it the wrong way can make a bad news story become toxic. In the wake of the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, which followed an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, the then BP chief executive Tony Hayward was criticised for a series of public relations gaffes – including saying “I want my life back” and the Gulf is “a big ocean”.

Stevens says the way the oil spill was handled is a classic example of what not to do. “You have to think about the image you’re presenting. He may well have been bothered by the criticism but you have to think why it’s occurring and address it.”

The former BP boss later admitted the company was “not prepared” to deal with fallout over the disaster and the media “feeding frenzy” surrounding it.

Perhaps he should have taken a leaf out of Sir Richard Branson’s book. “He’s the master of this sort of thing. He’s always well briefed and knows the right thing to say,” says Stevens.

He points to the way Branson handled the situation when a Virgin train travelling from London to Glasgow derailed at Grayrigg, near Kendal, in 2007, leaving one person dead and scores injured. “He interrupted his family holiday to go straight up there. He was pictured at the scene and visited the hospitals treating those injured. He said his trains were very strong and he called the driver a hero, and those two statements restored confidence in Virgin trains.”

Nick Ramshaw, managing director of Leeds-based Thompson Brand Partners, says Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is a good example of someone adept at handling media criticism.

“He’s perhaps not the most popular person in the world but he manages bad news really quite well. He was involved in a significant court case in which he paid out a huge amount of money, but he managed to keep his own reputation separate from that of the sport.”

Ramshaw says it’s easy for companies and organisations to find their reputations tarnished by a bad news story and believes honesty is the best policy. “Honesty is very important. It might sound a bit glib, but if something has happened you have to identify what it is and try and correct it.”

The sight of a company boss appearing in front of the cameras is usually an attempt at damage limitation, but quite often by the time they do come forward the damage has already been done.

It’s perhaps human instinct to want to blame somebody else, but there are times when you just have to admit you got it wrong.

As Warren Buffett, the great American businessman famously remarked: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Perhaps Fifa should take his advice.