Tuesday, 12 May 2015

English cricket and why sports PR is so hard

The words "English Cricket Board" and "PR disaster" are being used in the same sentence again. This week Strauss v Pietersen. Last week Peter Moores sacked by the rumour mill. Last month, new chairman Colin Graves doing the West Indies' team talk for them. Before that Graves on Pietersen and Downton on Pietersen.

To be fair to the ECB they are not alone on the sports PR own goal front. Football chairmen from Massimo Cellino at Leeds and Vincent Tan at Cardiff, to Venky's at Blackburn and Karl Oyston at Blackpool are recent offenders. And among governing bodies, how can we forget Sepp Blatter at FIFA, almost everyone involved in cycling, and the British taekwnodo association which refused to pick its world number one, Aaron Cook, for the London Olympics.

Why are sports bodies so bad at PR? And what does that say about the state of our profession? In my view there are two main factors at play, so to speak - the skills at the top of our profession and what some employers want from their PR appointments.

First of all the skills. When we join the ranks of communications and PR professionals, it is usually because we have some skills at media relations. You know, getting good news in papers and keeping some bad news out of them. But for a head of communications this should be the easiest part of the job. Too many comms leads still act merely as media relations officers with a "senior" or "head of" in their job title, still sweeping up the mess their leaders have made, but now it is higher profile and more costly mess than before.

The most difficult part of a comms lead's job, and one that we are collectively nowhere near cracking, is having a sufficient number of professionals with the skills we need at a senior level to stop our leaders making that mess in the first place - the influencing and negotiating skills to tell a chairman or chief executive: "You can't do that."

This is exacerbated in sport because, with the exception of a handful of clubs and organisations that are truly professional in their outlook, most sports bodies actually think they need someone to sweep up their mess, rather than preventing them from making it.

Very, very rich people would be regarded as being among the employers it can be most difficult to do PR for. Volunteers, potentially, are even more difficult because the rational, business reasons you may suggest they consider might not apply. If you put those two factors together into a chairman who has made lots of money in his (it's usually a his) chosen business; is now stepping into the completely different and irrational phenomenon that is sport; thinks that the things that worked in their gas or chicken business will work with millionaire sportspeople, under the media spotlight; and is in the role not necessarily to make money but to stroke his ego/play the patrician volunteer, that is a toxic combination for a head of communications to have to deal with. That chairman does not want to be told "No" under any circumstances. These are some of the reasons why sports PR is so hard, and done badly so often.

Having explained why this happens, I can't offer any solutions. But for all of us involved in reputation management, we should constantly evaluate whether we have the skills and authority we need in our role to successfully give unpopular advice in difficult circumstances. As a profession, we are not as good at it as we need to be.

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