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FIFA scandal undermines brand of beautiful game

May, 2015

News of arrests at FIFA’s headquarters in Geneva by FBI agents sent the media into a frenzy of activity, calling into question the reputation of the beautiful game. Andy Rayfield, a football fan and Account Director at Kent PR agency Maxim, considers some interesting questions.

Can FIFA survive? What damage has it done to the brands associated with football?  And what lessons can be learnt by business when it comes to managing their own reputations?

I grew up marvelling at the wizardry of Pele, Gerd Müller, Johan Cruyff and Gordon Banks. Seeing these high ranking officials arrested has shattered many a childhood illusion of fair play and honesty. In our heart of hearts we’ve all known the game was in trouble since probably the ‘hand of God’ did for England in 1986, but few would like to admit it.

Today, football is a global phenomenon, with many businesses and their reputations intertwined with behemoth brands such as Adidas, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, Hyundai, Kia, McDonald’s, Nike, Sony and Visa.

Linking these brands – each with hundreds of millions of pounds invested in their reputation every year – requires the trust of their owners in the sport’s ability to deliver commercial benefit. Many will be questioning their decision to link their precious names to the World Cup, which is now tainted as a brand itself.

Brands need trust

The FIFA scandal is on an unprecedented scale and one that reaches around the globe. The people arrested are those who were the brand ambassadors for football, the people who have challenged players and fans to show respect and fair play. However, behind closed doors, and through secret bank accounts, they have allegedly failed in the pursuit of personal wealth.

As consumers we make purchases on the basis of trust, as well as a balance of desire and need. Will the FIFA scandal stop you buying a Coke, a Kia or a Sony television? I’d argue not.

Guilt by association

Would you want your brand being transmitted into billions of homes and being associated with an event tainted by corruption? It’s going to be a brave brand owner who pulls the plug on their sponsorship – opening the door for a competitor to take a seat at the biggest single-event sporting competition in the world.

Over the coming days and weeks don't be surprised if some sponsors decide to sever their ties, especially those with strong links to the US, where the accused look likely to be extradited to face criminal proceedings.

Ripple effect

The allegations being made against FIFA suggest they conspired to ‘shut out competitors and keep highly lucrative contracts for themselves through the systematic payment of bribes and kickbacks’.

There will be many brand owners, and their PR advisers, hoping that none of their own management is linked to the allegations with the obvious risk to their own values – and market value.

What lessons can be learnt from the FIFA scandal?

Few of us will ever be unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a maelstrom of the size and scale of the one facing FIFA. However, there are some lessons we can learn from the situation:

  • What has made the FIFA situation worse and the position of President Sepp Blatter untenable is the fact that as an organisation it has had many years to put its house in order. The lesson has to be: act swiftly, act responsibly and show that you are addressing the allegations and taking action.
  • FIFA, unlike many organisations in the real world, is a fiefdom with a president with an already questionable reputation. At the heart of most successful companies is a strong boardroom, one where the directors have the courage of their own convictions to question the chief executive over any suspected malpractice or wrongdoings.
  • Have a credible spokesperson. FIFA’s cause was further hindered by its press spokesperson who first sought to clarify the situation and then suggested that in some way the investigation was good news for FIFA and part of its own efforts to clean up the game. The lesson learnt is: before you make public statements make sure you are in full possession of the facts and the comments stack up to media scrutiny.
  • Have a policy of openness and honesty when dealing with the press, unless it involves the untimely exposure of potentially commercial, sensitive information. The press has an in-built interest to investigate, and nothing gets them more interested than companies evading answering questions.

The FIFA story is one to watch, the players have only just come onto the field to warm up before the big match kicks off when the case comes to trial.

As for the future of FIFA, I can’t see sponsors allowing Sepp Blatter to remain as ‘manager’.

With the loss of so many key players, there’s an opportunity for somebody new to take the helm, clean up the dressing room and hopefully save what is one of the biggest and best sporting events in the world – unless you’re an England fan, when it invariably means four more years of hurt.

As acting US Attorney Currie said at the press conference: “It’s only just beginning.”


posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management,

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