As the dust from the European Super League debacle settles, our Account Manager Liam McCafferty takes a look at the missteps the clubs made along the way, and the events that turned public perception against the Big Six’s coup d’etat.
The launch of the European Super League may go down as one of the biggest PR disasters of the decade. At this point, the six Premier League participants have all withdrawn from the league. The final whistle has been blown. No extra time.
The breakaway tournament lasted a grand total of two days: As former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher put it, “born April 18, 2021, died April 20, 2021.” The project was a fatal misstep – one involving corporate giants which surely should know better. It managed to do the impossible: temporarily uniting the nation – from pundits, to players, to legal commentators – reaching as far as the Prime Minister.
In many ways, this looks and feels like a classic crisis situation. Two days of wall-to-wall hostile coverage backed by countless threats of legal action. The bad news hit hard, and then some; moving above and beyond the confines of the sports broadcasters to the House of Commons via the front page of Monday’s Financial Times.
This is the story of how a product launch, years in the making – appeared to be doomed from its inception. This was no flash in the pan crisis, where a single mistake fuelled by a clumsy response – or an unfortunate incident resulting from an unforeseen event – triggers a crisis. Instead, this was a catastrophe firmly of the creator’s own invention. Despite backing by established financial entities in the world’s most lucrative sport, driven by its strongest brands; the breakaway league ended unceremoniously, nonetheless. This inevitably draws us to the question: why didn’t they know better?
Look Before You Leap
From one perspective, it looks like this could be the traditional, good story gone bad. A product launch which (for all intents and purposes) looks like it has a positive story to tell: Europe’s finest and most esteemed footballing institutions uniting to enhance a product beloved by fans around the world. However, even with the rosiest-possible tint, there was clearly identifiable reputational risks from the outset. Previous statements made by high-profile figures, such as those of current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp in 2019,is evidence that is clearly a contentious issue.
As such, it required an active, issues management strategy from the very get-go. Proactive initiatives – no matter how positive they seem – should always be approached as crisis-in-waiting for as long as reputational risks are identifiable. In this instance, one would hope that reputational risk assessment were undertaken by the clubs prior to the announcement. Ultimately, decision-makers may decide to proceed despite the risk. PR professionals are the eyes and ears of any active, listening organisation. It’s our job to ensure they have the right intelligence to make an informed decision. This should include scenario planning to identify the very worst-case scenario and in-depth evaluation of the external landscape, based upon careful horizon scanning. How serious is the risk? What are public attitudes? Is there potential for outrage? What would be the worst-case scenario – and how can we mitigate against these?
Strike Hard, Strike Fast
The most fascinating aspect of the entire affair might have been the opening shots. The timing of the announcement, late on Sunday evening, appeared deliberately designed to disrupt a pre-planned announcement by UEFA, the governing body for European football, on the reformed Champions League format. This would be the primary competitor for the new insurgent league. It suggests that, in fact; thorough crisis planning had taken place. The reputational risks had been identified and assessed, and an aggressive issues management strategy deployed to undermine their primary antagonists. It suggests careful stakeholder mapping, with an understanding that UEFA held both influence and an immutably hostile disposition. They would need to be taken out of the game at all costs.
In many ways, the odds might even appear to be stacked in the rebels’ favour. Football’s governing bodies have rocked by years of scandal following allegations of corruption. A 2018 Ipsos Mori poll found that only 32% of Britons trusted FIFA, the international body, to act in the best interest of football and spectators worldwide. UEFA has not remained unscathed either, and an air of mistrust continues to surround these institutions. By contrast, the founders of the European Super League enjoy some of the strongest and most popular brands in the sporting world. Clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool have successfully built upon their community traditions to develop a strong ethos and values associated with solidarity, integrity and excellence underpinning a powerful, positive brand identity. So why is it the case that the status quo prevailed after all?
“Trust Dies but Mistrust Blossoms”
It is – in part – due to the critical role of public trust in making or breaking a reputation. Closely linked is the concept of outrage, which acts almost as a multiplier to any reputational issue driven by a hostile sentiment amongst wider external audiences.
Trust is a tricky beast to quantify for an organisation given that it is, ultimately, shaped by broader issues such as the wider trend of declining trust in sectors, leaders, or institutions as a whole. Nevertheless, organisations should always seek to proactively gain trust amongst their key demographics – even if the benefits initially appear to be marginal. Engendering, and then maintaining trust is therefore a critical part of a long-term strategy to protect and bolster reputation. The key ingredients to creating trust are quite intuitively understood because they are the qualities that we find ourselves looking for when investing in others in all capacities of life: we want you to deliver, to meet our expectations, to behave responsively, and to live your values with the utmost integrity.
The final point was the ultimate pitfall for these clubs. It was the perceived hypocrisy – that clubs respected and trusted for their commitment to values, would turn their backs upon those principles for purely commercial reasons, something which to many, felt like a betrayal It’s possible that the rebel clubs believed that the strength of their brands, or of the new product itself, could have pulled them through even the most hostile of reputational landscapes; or perhaps they may have dramatically underestimated the level of the opposition to their league. But more important to understanding the magnitude of the reputational damage caused, is understanding the critical value of showing integrity through living your values. Being perceived as failing to do so, as in this instance, can be the recipe for a swift fall from grace.
Can Trust Be Rebuilt?
As the adage goes, reputations take decades to build but are lost overnight; and to some extent, there is very little crisis event management that could have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. That being said, post-crisis repair starts at the crisis event management phase. How you manage the situation is not just important for mitigation, but also in determining how long it will take you to recover. In many notable instances, the repair stage was hindered from the very get-go by gaffs and clumsy stage management in the opening hours. In this instance, there was almost absolute radio silence in response to a relentless onslaught of hostility. The club statements, on Sunday night, almost stood as testament to their arrogance. It helped to shape the narrative that will haunt these clubs for years to come.
Since the incident, clubs have begun to apologise. It is a start. The road to redemption, once the dust has settled, will be a long and arduous one for most of these clubs. It will be meaning living their values with integrity, and seemingly little reward, for years to come. Only then can they start to re-establish the trust they need to repent for their sins and build a reputation befitting clubs with such a strong and storied tradition.