Always outnumbered, never outgunned…

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One of the hardest things in any marketing campaign is trying to explain the emotive, intangible part of what you are trying to accomplish in your PR goals.

Emotions seem abstract, intangible and irrational to people trying to crunch numbers and work out advertising strategies and revenues.

This is particularly true in PR campaigns involving existing brands that people love and are loyal to.

It’s one thing to talk about verticals and brand loyalty and customer personalization.

Living it, believing in it, and understanding why people love a brand is a very different proposition.

In the last blog, we talked about how AFLX was pitched as being for kids and some vague “non traditional demographic”.

We spoke about how AFLX had no emotional core to it, no reason to come back to it and certainly no reason to believe world altering franchises were around the corner.

AFLX is a night of content, a singular event.

While there is nothing wrong with that, from a brand point of view the selling points they were pitching prior to it about kids and growing the game through Team Rampage can never be fulfilled.

In contrast, AFLW is a league that can leave an emotive legacy and genuinely grow the game through participation and the creation of new heroes.

It’s a curiosity as to why that potential has not been fully marketed on or understood by AFLHQ.

With the positioning of AFLW as a brand, it’s hard to think those at HQ have clued into its greatest marketing strength.

That strength is the sheer loyalty to the brand many fans already have.

After every game the players are signing autographs for anyone who wants one.

After every game the players are connecting and ensuring those who want to meet their heroes aren’t disappointed, even after defeats.

By contrast, Alex Rance riding into Marvel Stadium on a Segway is a Twitter fireworks show.

It’s a gag, a moment they hope goes viral, but what brand loyalty does it build?

What’s the marketing strategy that converts that into a kid becoming a lifelong Alex Rance fan (crucially, not a Richmond fan, since Dangerfield says the future of sports marketing is for kids to support players not teams)?

Does that moment equate on an emotive level to a little girl getting an autograph from Erin Phillips?

Why is that not championed, shown on every available media platform?

On a basic PR level, the simplest thing for the AFL websites to do would be find and round-up every available photo of post game autograph signings and share them far and wide.

This would promote AFLW as the genuine football experience that people claim to lack these days in the era of kisscams and dance troupes.

It’s part of a strange dichotomy that AFLW has the genuine authentic community experience nostalgic conservative football fans claim to hanker for in a soulless sporting era.

Seemingly because that experience involves women, it too must be decried or have a cap put on its potential.

The one thing that is clear is AFLHQ still don’t know to sell and connect emotionally with AFLW fans.

The failure to put on a game on International Womens Day is testament to that, as is the 1/2 baked Marvel Superhero round, which wasn’t sold with confidence at all.

While we were against the Marvel themed tie in, once it was in place, it had to be sold a lot better.

The AFLW double-header didn’t involve multiple attempts to give tickets away like AFLX did, and lacked a promotional push at the end, let alone free tickets given away to AFL members and schoolkids.

Three years in AFLHQ still don’t understand the values that underpin the AFLW competition.

The values that underpin AFLW have become emotive and incongruous to the “kick more goals” narrative that AFLHQ wants to promote.

Understanding the humor, values, community and the way AFLW fans communicate to each other requires more thinking than simply promoting football the old way on goals and stats.

AFLX is easy to promote, it’s garish, it’s “funky” (c Nat Fyfe), it’s loud – it’s easy to promote via sheer volume, even if the reasoning for that is flawed.

Marketing AFLW?

That’s harder, that involves changing marketing mindsets, listening to new fans and new voices, releasing all existing prejudices on how to market “footy” and changing the tone and adapting.

However the rewards for finding a way to connect, market to the community and tap into the purchasing power of AFLW fans (especially younger female fans) would logically have more upside than AFLX.

When the brand loyalty is higher, the rewards are greater.

If the league can work that out, it would be significant and grow the league and game, and create a greater sense of belonging to female fans and participants.

AFLW can differentiate itself in so many ways, and trade on its emotional connection with its fans, but at this point in time, they still don’t know quite how to do it.

They haven’t sufficiently found a way to market the differences between mens and womens football.

Neither the Dare to Create and GenW campaigns have resonated with the marketplace.

In truth, there may not be a singular marketing and advertising campaign that resonates, if they stick to the “slogan that sticks” ideal of marketing.

A lot of people in PR now believe mass marketing and advertising blitzes that focus on product selling are archaic, and that the best way to market is through a campaign that creates brand loyalty and emotive connections.

Simply putting Dare to Create on a website isn’t enough.

While GenW flirted around the edges of an emotive campaign, it didn’t connect due to a lack of follow-up effort.

The people on the screen in those ads became nameless stock images, rather than individual people with stories to tell.

There have been opportunities (and we’ll discuss one below) to personalise and individualise the stories of the women around the league, playing the game and supporting the game.

Even the commentary on AFLW games (even from the redoubtable Kelli Underwood) can lapse into folksy generalisations around how some former netballers and mothers of two are doing so gosh darn well to play our great game.

If AFLW really wanted to sell itself as a brand, as far back as season 1 we talked about greater personalization and the opportunities to create unique fan experiences.

If our favorite player is say Brooke Lochland or Cora Staunton, the app will give me personalised experiences around those players, post match interviews and a variant of their story that we can access.

Again, the contrast to AFLX is worth noting, because one of the selling points was that kids will follow players in the future, rather than teams.

AFLX isn’t going to give that connection, and imagining that Eddie Betts in a sharp suit is going to do that comes from a place that misunderstands Australian sporting culture.

What they are really thinking of is the ability to sell personalised merchandise like the NBA, a league where favorite player matters as much as favorite team, where the jersey is as significant as who you support.

AFLW isn’t about selling personalised jerseys, which is the ultimate marketing goal of AFLX, but it is a more realistic chance of creating personalised interactions, since the chance of meeting and following your hero is far greater.

That’s not to say initiatives like the AFLW Unfiltered series and the Heroes documentary on the ABC aren’t worthwhile, but they usually end up being swallowed up and underpromoted comparative to other initiatives.

HQ still don’t fully understand what the emotive connection AFLW fans feel towards their heroes actually consists of.

At this stage, no one from HQ has understood the values of the league, and the responsibility for tuning into the values of the fans has fallen to the individual clubs.

A club like the GWS Giants for instance have no traditional baggage around what a “footy” club should be, and market their womens team as an inclusive part of their sporting brand.

The Giants social media team has been ahead of the curve all season, promoting the womens team, taking people inside the walls, and in particular telling the emotive stories of their debutants.

They aren’t the only club to have upped their social media game in season three, but they are one of those that have been able to integrate their womens promotion seamlessly into the main feeds without facing significant backlash from “footy” traditionalists.

When GWS posted the clip around Tait Mackrill finding out she was making her debut, it had a particular resonance because of the set up to her finding out and the story behind it that involved several knockbacks and rejections due to fitness.

The ABC followed up on this on their Australian Story show, making the Mackrill story a feature, that included an emotional clip of her grandparents saying how proud they were of her.

Even those “footy” traditionalists could understand the story – after a long period of rejection, Mackrill was finally making her debut.

Given the Giants and the ABC had told the story so well, you’d think that AFLHQ would distribute the story far and wide.

Instead, that was where the story ended.

Instead of telling the story of Mackrill on the main website, it was subsumed by Eddie Betts buying a suit or Jack Riewoldt winning a game of paper, rock scissors.

This sums up the disconnect that frustrates those in PR monitoring the league, that such obvious mutual free publicity is missed, that such chances simple drift by without being taken.

There’s a marketing mythology which is growing that AFLW players are inherently more interesting than their male counterparts, which isn’t entirely true or fair.

It’s unfair to say male players can’t be interesting, or tell interesting stories, and it’s unfair to make a generalisation about everyone.

What can be said is that womens football is better placed to tell stories – male football still locks themselves inside Ross Lyons famous “bubble”, and has an inherent conservatism.

Trying to market a male football team or player, there are several levels of PR and marketing managers resistant to let stories be told or promote anything that becomes “bulletin board” material.

In lieu of that, male footballers are also suspicious of the media and opening up, since the football media has gained a reputation for sensationalism, clickbait and general Kane Cornesing that means male players don’t answer questions with honesty.

There’s also a marketing issue around striking a balance between telling the stories of the female players but respecting them as athletes.

As we said above, there’s been a noticable backlash towards AFLW commentators who over emphasise the players amount of children or past sporting profession at the expense of providing expertise in their on field commentary.

Balancing building a genuine connection between fans and players would thus from a marketing point of view be about telling stories about the players as athletes and their off field stories.

As the sport grows, the quality of writing around AFLW would theoretically increase, and make promoting the athlete easier.

Again, all of this is about creating emotive connections, lasting connections, growing heroes and finding a way to grow womens football.

And again, this is all something that should be a positive discussion – it doesn’t have to be negative, from a marketing point of view, AFLW has limitless possibilities.

This puts it in contrast to AFLX, which can’t build anything with a genuine lasting connection.

Trying to balance all of this from a PR point of view isn’t particularly easy, but the lack of a coherent marketing strategy (and indeed strategy for anything) means AFLW is always chasing it’s own tail.

Everything ends up being ad hoc, to point that things that are obvious and easy to promote are missed.

Particularly since there is a logical answer to all of these issues staring everyone in the face.

How Erin Phillips has never been involved in a national advertising campaign is a question no one can truly answer….

 

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Only to be let down, time after time…

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In public relations, we spend a lot of time worrying about what our youngest consumers and purchasers think and associate with our brand.

You’ll hear a lot of cliches around targeting to this market – don’t use advertising for instance, because with the young folk, it’s about building trust, enhancing reputation, telling great stories, making things fun….

Those said same cliches will say young people are the most brand loyal consumers and the most susceptible to marketing campaigns.

Persuasive intent is at the heart of all PR campaigns – win consumers new to the market or persuade people to switch allegiances.

The next two blog posts are focused on a tale of two brands – AFLX and AFLW (focused on the GWS Giants AFLW team and their social media approaches).

It’s fascinating to compare and contrast different marketing approaches towards younger fans as both brands try to capture their interest as they enter the market as new sports fans.

AFLX was specifically made as a brand.

It’s not a sport yet, it’s a brand, a specifically created product to try to engage kids and families to watch Australian Rules Football.

AFLX is specifically created for kids, it doesn’t make any bones about that, that its market isn’t the traditional football fan.

It makes it obvious that it cares little for your traditional consumer loyalty to Australian Rules football.

It’s openly designed for children, with every press release or Matt Thompson cross making sure to mention how much FUN all of this is.

Whether it’s Patrick Dangerfield talking about “new demographics” like he’s done a PR crash course or Nat Fyfes “chill out, lets laugh, be funky!” sales pitch, AFLX hasn’t bothered with selling itself to the rusted on.

This is the hip new sport for the funky young consumer – the non traditional fan.

And at least part of the reason it’s failing is because it’s not been sold well enough or thought through enough to earn the right to pitch itself with such self-confidence to any market.

There’s genuine questions about who those “non traditional” demographics Dangerfield has talked about are, especially since the “night of fun” is being played in Melbourne.

As a side note, it was interesting to see Dangerfield and Gerard Whateley so confused and on the back foot on SEN as to why their AFLX concept was failing to connect.

Dangerfield claimed to be “gobsmacked” by the criticism and articles of hate.

Whateley said AFLX was “filling a sports void” and was a bit of fun and why were people so mad?

With Dangerfield, it is interesting to see someone so embedded in male football culture run headlong into the conservative male football fan rejecting their attempts to play a game that’s different.

Those who play AFLW may relate to Dangerfield receiving hatred from those so resistant to share “traditional” space.

An AFLW devotee may gently mutter “welcome to our world” and ponder why no one has spoken up for that league with quite such vehemence.

As for Whateley, it was interesting to see someone once so lauded as progressive and innovative become just another myopic male sports commentator with little of interest to say.

Tim Lane syndrome you might say.

Whateley bemoaned a sports void with little regard to changing tides in sport.

Speaking of the football/cricket/football pattern of yore like it was still the heyday of commercial television shows a dated mindset.

On the night Whateley claimed there was a sporting void, AFLX aired simultaneously against a womens cricket one day international with genuine meaning.

It was another salient reminder that a voice that starts out independent and interesting will be subsumed in the pursuit of awards and commercial success.

However, we digress…

And a voice says don’t you see

So who are these “non traditional”, “new” demographics that AFLX claims to be pursuing?

Kids?

Is that really a new demographic?

Kids in Melbourne will engage more in footy if they attend a night of rock climbing and get a balloon animal?

Families?

There could be something in the idea of creating an inclusive space for families if AFLM crowds continue to devolve and crowd behavior continues to be an issue, but that’s not been used as a selling point.

Melburnians?

Well….

Overseas audiences?

The initial plans for AFLX were floated out PR clouds.

Big bold claims of franchise events in Hong Kong and America that were going to take over the world.

Of course as an American we’d be remiss to not point out that when sports talk about “conquering America!” they treat places as different as Louisiana and Texas like the same market.

One of our PR thoughts initially was these AFLX “events” in season 1 and 2 were created by design to create show reels to sell to overseas TV markets, but that hasn’t been followed through.

One of our initial PR fears was that with AFLW squeezed out Melbourne on the weekend it would create space for the Melbourne media to partake in an old school PR blitz for AFLX.

Instead all that came out of that was Matt Thompsons usual AFLHQ love and live crosses and something about paper, rock, scissors….

So if all the obvious marketing angles fail and there’s no legacy planted, all that’s left is an old school night of content created for the networks, with no lasting merit.

AFLX doesn’t even fit the specific need that T20 cricket, the one that TV demanded from cricket.

T20 addressed the TV networks requirements to not be committed to 8-9 hours of broadcasting a single game.

AFLX doesn’t have a selling point to the masses beyond “it’s fun!”, and creating come and go content for the content era.

It also runs the marketing risk of becoming self-indulgent, with players dressing like NBA players and living out the NBA fantasy of singular fame and stardom.

In a week where another Tasmanian football club (Circular Head/Smithton) fell over due to a lack of participants, the sight of AFLM footballers strutting into Marvel Stadium in suits like NBA players is a palpable sign of disconnect.

At all levels of AFLHQ marketing, there is a lack of clear focus as to what HQ wants football to be in the future.

It’s a topic for another day of course, the AFLM deep-seated desire to actually BE the NBA in every way.

That blog would be about how every HQ marketing decision is based on watching an NBA game on ESPN and responding.

Of course, that fights against male footballers inherent conservatism.

The slightest interesting comment from a player is pounced about as “bulletin board material” by the cabal of ex Lyons and Cornes style players in the media.

Also, AFLM is inherently conservative in its demographics and traditions.

It’s already struggling with its traditional fan base to be allowed to share any kind of space with women or newer fans, lest they change the dynamics.

And yes, part of the resistance to AFLX IS from those that said same conservatism – we’d be remiss to ignore that.

The said same conservatives on social media that go unchallenged when they reject AFLW are those frustrating AFLHQ on their quest to create something for the kids.

There’s nothing wrong with sports innovation, there’s nothing wrong with experimentation, and there’s nothing wrong with making a pitch to kids with purchasing power.

However, we’ll cover this across both blogs, anyone paying basic marketing attention would know AFLW in its 3rd season has already created heroes for younger girls.

That connection is more real and genuine than anything AFLX can convey.

It’s hard to connect with AFLX as something that’s going to great lasting loyalty or kids walking around Melbourne in their Rampage jumpers.

It’s by design set up as a singular night of fun with no follow up activity planned until next years fast food meal.

If you take brand loyalty as a starting point in creating any relationship with new customers, AFLX doesn’t fulfil that goal, and can never fulfil that goal in any way close to AFLW.

It’s strange or wilfully ignorant to ignore something genuine with younger female fans to come over the top and state you know what kids REALLY want.

While AFLX spends its time “engaging” with kids, after every single AFLW game the players are signing autographs and building genuine grass-roots connections.

These connections aren’t nurtured through focus groups or marketing plans, but week on week, and actually creating new participants in the game.

They should be considered just as vital to creating relationships with future fans as whatever the AFLX marketing plan is,

That it isn’t is an interesting discussion as to why that is.

You can take the pace, but are you getting anywhere

That makes the final question around AFLX its long term viability and how its pursuit of the younger generation is playing out.

It’s hard to judge the viability of what AFLX is attempting to do

The success of a heavily papered crowd in footballs heartland isn’t necessarily evidence of anything substantive.

In AFLW, crowds as high as 42000 are seen as simply signs of free entry.

PR is the eye of the beholder, and for AFLX, a freebie influenced crowd can be taken if you want it as “support for the product”.

AFLX may become some kind of fill in for the EJ Whitten Legends Game in terms of providing a singular night of content.

With that, no one ever said the Whitten Game was proof of fan engagement or grew the game.

We can park any marketing ideas of AFLX taking over the world as PR brochure material.

In a time where sport is almost hitting saturation point and it’s harder to break through, the idea of China falling in love with AFLX simply isn’t happening.

There’s also no correlation in marketing between exposing a 9-year-old to a singular event and creating future brand loyalty.

No evidence that a night on the AFLX bouncy castle will nurture loyalty to the sport.

Australian Rules football greatest brand loyalty is to teams, and has been over time.

Not to the game itself as such or to HQ or driven by more music or misguided attempts at fan engagement, but teams, communities and loyalty to those wearing your chosen jumper.

AFLX is part of a fundamental mis-understanding of its core fan base.

A belief from HQ that the best way to nurture future relationships is to turn up the volume and pump up more balloons or even open up the changing rooms for “fan access”.

Is AFLX even entertaining enough to exist as a singularly anticipated event, a part of the traditional football calendar?

Will James Brayshaw screaming into a mic about ever-changing rules and finding the hilarity in tall people stand the test of marketing time?

Not on present evidence, which sets it up to only exist if they give out freebies.

There isn’t enough support or space in the calendar to promote franchises, not enough interest to generate private investment.

It also makes no sense to pin your hopes of increasing your audience on the ever-changing whims of children.

AFLX gives them no discernible reason to stay loyal to your brand, while your traditional fan base is alienated by the loud noise and dance troupes.

It is an interesting dichotomy that a lot of the conservative driven AFLM fans who so reject women playing will in time feel truly alienated by marketing strategies that reject them in pursuit of younger fans and Gatorade Game Changers ™.

Abbey Holmes interviewing a balloon maker isn’t the end of the world, but it is the pursuit of the wrong demographic, or at least the right demographic in the wrong way.

These aren’t the complaints of the humorless, or those who fail to chuckle at “Brown Fang” on a back of a jumper, but legitimate questions about the future of Australian Rules Football from a PR point of view.

It’s fine to imbue a piece about AFLX with significant Schadenfreude and mockery, but it’s existence and the 450000 dollars spent on players alone deserve some kind of questioning, as to what the end game actually is.

Why be mad asks Gerard Whateley?

Why not just chill out, live life, take up some Gatorade and have a laugh at the silly players rolling in on a Segway or dressed in a sharp suit?

It’s reasonable to be mad, to find to the top-level self-indulgence and lack of support for the game, the lack of a coherent marketing strategy to be infuriating.

AFLX as footballs fizzy drink, footballs fast food is what it is, but there’s enough questions about the use of time and resources from HQ that, if they don’t infuriate or madden, at least need to be answered or discussed.

Especially since, as we’ll explore next time, a much more genuine story and tale came from the GWS Giants.

One that ticked a lot of the boxes AFLX is supposed to in terms of creating brand loyalty and engagement with new markets…

I try so hard not to get upset, because I know all the trouble I’ll get…

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In public relations, we often discuss how our brand and marketing campaigns respond to online trolls and negative feedback.

Truthfully we sometimes do this to the point of over analyzing and over thinking the reaction to a single negative online comment.

Since in this day and age 4 negative tweets create a “backlash” story that overworked news outlets can come up with in a lunch break, all brands are conscious of having a strategy to deal with feedback online.

People in PR and marketing often quote the Streisand effect in their dealings.

The notion that responding to criticism will bring more attention to something and more disapprobation than just ignoring the comments is a legitimate PR strategy of course.

The singular over-reaction to a bad Yelp review for instance is a news cycle staple, the purest of Streisand effects.

It has made brands gun shy and conservative in their dealings, hoping that online criticism and even trolling will pass in time.

But there are times your brand does need to defend itself, when the criticism seems relentless, unfounded and unfair, how do you approach your response?

What values do you wish to promote in your brand when that online criticism goes into the mainstream and is a big part of your story?

One of the big discussion points in AFLW right now involves how the league and the players should respond to trolling and criticism.

AFLW has never simply been allowed to be a sport, and has never truly been allowed to exist as a sport.

It was Mark Robinson (of all people) who commented when Mo Hope was struggling that he (as a male commentator) should be able to point out Hope was having a poor season as he would for any sportsperson.

In an ideal world, we could have that conversation.

However Robinson’s own paper published a page of letters with all levels of the subtle commentary you can imagine from a Murdoch paper following the Collingwood vs Carlton game in Season 2.

One bad game wasn’t just taken as a disappointing game, but a referendum on the whole leagues existence.

After that it was suddenly open season on womens football.

It is important to make that distinction early because it defines the heart of why “shut up and play” isn’t a valid PR strategy at this moment.

The notion that sometimes crops up in these debates is “well they have to cop it like other sportspeople”, but the basis of the trolling and commentary never comes from a place of sporting debate.

The criticisms aren’t on sporting ability, they are on the very existence of the league, and since opening day in season 2, it hasn’t let up.

On a daily basis, AFLW players and fans face a daily barrage of criticism and commentary from (mostly) male social media users.

The range of criticism covers a spectrum that comments on poor skills and low scoring through to outright viciousness about the players looks, sexuality and the very right to play the game itself.

Over this week. Channel 7 got on the front foot, making a short 1 minute video in which AFLW players responded to their haters, and posted it online.

Quickly, this clip was deleted by the insistence of AFLHQ, citing reasons that it was unauthorised and “didn’t fit their message of inclusivity”.

Of course, we are not naive enough to know Channel 7s motivations weren’t exactly altruistic – they wanted to create a piece of provocative viral marketing for their coverage.

The merits of the video itself are different to discussing the message of course, which is the point of this post today, since it stands as the only recorded coordinated response to this online hatred that has been created to date.

From a marketing point of view, inclusivity is an interesting word to use in this situation, since a basic brand analysis of AFLW shows their idea of inclusivity doesn’t cut both ways.

The mythology is that if the girls just “shut up and play”, “don’t give this criticism oxygen”, put their head down and kick more goals this criticism will go away.

This is strategically unproven given the 3 years of the leagues existence provides evidence to the contrary.

Draw a large crowd? Get trolled for entry being free.

Kick more goals? Get trolled for how easy it is for “chicks to kick goals”.

It’s hard to think what the league can do now to be “inclusive” to those who disparage it, and to be honest, it’s getting to the point where you could even ask why it has or wants to try.

The league needs to now find strategies to engage the existing community that loves and cares for it, rather than chasing those who turn their backs no matter what happens.

A basic brand analysis shows AFLW is continually chasing the approval of this mythical “mainstream” rather than ensuring its own growth year on year with young female fans.

At a time where summer sport is becoming more disparate in the ratings, there is a place for AFLW and it can be a confident participant in the sporting landscape.

And part of that is to be confident enough to empower its clubs and players to take on trolling head on – ignoring the posts hasn’t worked.

To be clear, a brand management strategy doesn’t need to have someone sitting responding to every single negative tweet from someone with 6 followers, but it is getting incumbent on clubs to have their own players backs.

Inclusivity is a two-way street, it can’t just be on the players to “push through” as good corporate citizens, that isn’t fair at all.

We stated last year post the memo how dis-spiriting it was that a league that claimed empowerment and that it was the girl’s home essentially told the girls to make it look prettier and more attractive based on male feedback.

And watching the leagues response to the issue of trolling, here we find ourselves again.

Voices Carry

Already this year, Kane Cornes, Dwayne Russell, Richard Hinds and (even more dis-spiritingly) Abbey Holmes and Lauren Wood (on the ever troublesome Womens Footy show) have come up with variants of the “shut up and smile” theory.

In the co-authorised book about her father Mick Malthouse, Christi Malthouse cites an early 2000s example of Eddie McGuire telling her to go into work after a barrage of criticism with a big smile and her finest lippy as if nothing had happened.

Of course, we can think that advice (and Malthouse being grateful for it) is indicative of a dated mindset, but it is still being promoted as a point of view on a Channel 9 womens football show.

The trouble with this theory from an AFLW brand point of view, given the relentless trolling, is it puts the onus on the burdened (the players and fans) to do something about the trolls.

This is seen as an option, rather than putting the onus on the unburdened who can post any comments they want with impunity.

From a PR perspective, it is still possible for even the most conservative brands to pick strategic battles in terms of what their brand means and is meant to represent.

The best hope to deal with trolling officially has probably sailed, since officially the clubs, news outlets and HQ have allowed the situation to fester.

And yes, ignoring the trolls was an option, but AFLW as a brand is so intertwined with “footy”, and all the connotations and values that come with it.

All the ex male players, all the ill-informed commentary….

Dwayne Russell’s suggestion – to highlight the highlights and accentuate the great parts of AFLW?

Wonderful in theory, but fans online especially aren’t allowed their own space TO enjoy those highlights and enjoy the league as it is and grows?

And yes, that includes the mainstream media, who fixate on low scores and demand changes and shout over those who enjoy things about the league like Bec Goddard talking about the Corrs and the Fridge army that non fans wouldn’t understand.

If no one is officially going to challenge Peter Jess saying concussions are going to create an “intergenerational nightmare in which women forget to pick up their children from school” and that makes the paper, how much can the anonymous trolls get away with?

To tie back to the first paragraph, yes, ignoring the trolls is an option, but from a PR point of view, ignoring trolls is still a strategic brand decision that needs planning.

It’s fine for Wood to suggest the game should “talk to those we love”, but that’s not strategic in terms of brand reputation for AFLW anymore.

The reputation management of AFLW has been so poor day to day, that they now need a strategy better than “stay positive and play footy girls!”

It’s important to define that “ignoring the trolls” in this day and age does need to chosen as a strategy, since it still needs a point of counter activity, and AFLHQ haven’t done that, rendering it a moot option.

“Talk to those we love” – we’re trying, but we’re being interrupted 2, 3 times over by negative comments.

To now suggest three seasons in that the players have to carry some sort of burden for the situation is a disgraceful place to put yourself from a PR point of view.

To put the onus back on the players to “play better” or “be nicer on social media” or “come on girls, give us something to support!” is not working anymore.

It shows a lack of leadership, a lack of strategy and a lack of foresight.

Every time you’re looking the other way

We will finish with a specific example to illuminate the points above and why it’s becoming impossible for AFLW participants to just “talk to those we love”.

For those engaged in the AFLW news cycle, there are so many specific examples of horrible mean-spirited trolling, mis-represented quotes and half-truths masking as columns (hello Kane Cornes again).

This very week Steph Chiocci was misquoted in a Super Footy article about low scoring, sparking the cycle of commentary we’ve been talking about.

We do want to hone in on something in particular to illuminate the points above.

Among countless examples we could pick from, two significant ones involve Sarah Perkins of the Adelaide Crows AFLW team.

Last year, Perkins signed on to play for Hawthorns VFLW team, and as is standard, Hawthorn posted a “Welcome to Hawthorn” post on their Facebook page.

The comments that followed were vicious, and unrelenting, criticising Perkins look, play and women in general – and that was from Hawthorn fans commenting on their own player.

Significantly, these comments weren’t challenged by anyone from Hawthorn – none of their high-profile ex players, none of their officials, none of their current players, and none of their higher profile supporters.

Just this past weekend, Perkins knocked over her team-mate Anne Hatchard in a chest bump goal celebration, and Fox Footy reposted the clip out of context as “a goal celebration gone wrong” with the insinuation Hatchard had been injured.

The result of such mean-spirited click bait from Fox – more trolling, even more widespread this time, and again, neither Fox Footy, the league or the Crows have commented on it.

Obviously, it’s not stating anything other than the obvious that expecting a Murdochian related publication to exercise restraint or taste when there are clicks to be had is impossible, and they have allowed the post and its festering comments to exist with no moderation.

On a very basic level, allowing such online viciousness to exist can have a significant impact on a participants mental health.

The Players Tribune/Players voice websites in the USA and Australia consistently feature articles on a players mental health suffering under the weight of relentless social media pressure.

And yet Superfooty and Fox Footy and club websites and social media feeds let these kind of AFLW comments pass without moderation or concern, because posting a negative story about womens football is now a way to get clicks.

Fox Footy being deliberately mean-spirited and vicious about a funny goal celebration simply can’t go unchallenged, and yet it illustrates the battles that are faced against the trolls every single day, and who enables them.

It shouldn’t be left to Perkins to fight her own battles on social media on this, it should be part of the daily inclusivity that the AFLHQ so demands that basic respect be given.

It also shouldn’t be on the players and teams to be put in the position where every week they live on trial, that one low scoring game is enough to put the future of the league in question.

When it’s at the stage where Fox Footy can so openly post something to get the trolls in, “shut up and smile” simply isn’t an option anymore…

 

 

 

You’re giving me something not so real

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We talk often on this blog about the notion of reputation management – the idea that you work exceptionally hard from a PR perspective to associate your brand with certain qualities and associated words and values.

We’ve spoke often that PR is often associated with crisis management, and that’s only partially true, because your brand is something you need to monitor and manage in good times and bad.

In terms of reputation management, the kick off of 5 AFLW practice games gave AFLW HQ the chance to hit a significant reset button after last years negativity, criticism and poor handling of promotional issues.

The promotion for the new season involved sticking a W on a wall, some skywriting, and then that was pretty much it before the season started.

Last season, faced with criticism that the season was poorly promoted (as late as mid January, the website was updated only ever 4 days) AFLW “head” Nicole Livingstone said something akin to cutting back on promotion due to increased awareness of AFLW.

The backlash to the lack of promotion and failure to engage a sense of community setback the whole season.

It put it on the backfoot to be dismissed by THOSE Herald Sun letter writers, and things never really recovered.

By the time the memo hit, the seasons positive energy from a PR point of view was long gone.

From a public relations point of view, getting active around the practice games would have been at least an olive branch to the fans, providing a sense that they had listened to their concerns.

There are esoteric concerns that can be addressed from a PR point of view, things like providing a dream team game, greater promotion, better merchandise, but simply getting on the front foot and keeping everyone engaged in the practice match schedule would have been a positive start.

This was a huge chance to create a buzz, on a weekend for the die hards, to tie into a positive weekend for womens sports.

And the thing was, things looked a little better and brighter – the club websites and Twitter feeds were trying harder, there was a teaser trailer for an ad campaign (we’ll get to that later) and a renewed sense of purpose that things could be better.

And then….officially at least…radio silence….

Managing day-to-day brand reputation means you are well prepared, that you publicise these practice matches, and then give the requisite support, through your official sports hub.

It’s unthinkable that official hub of ANY sporting league puts no thought into publicising their own matches, at any level, nor provide live updates of what is going on, not in these era….

And yet…

Officially, the AFLW Twitter feed provided no updates at all, providing 1 retweet all day of a link provided by the Brisbane Lions – no scores, no updates, no sense of community by retweeting the work done by the clubs and fans.

Facebook? One score all day, the North Melbourne vs Melbourne score.

Instagram? The same singular post.

The websites? AFLW straddles two different links and websites, and neither of them were updated all day with any information at all – in an irony, the last story on the AFLW website posted was about the Crows coaching adopting a “wait and see” mantra….

Obviously within that, the “main” website featured no updates all day – a website that seems to find time to inform of new player haircuts in the AFLM game and provide a news update that Alex Rance has grown a beard can’t find space to inform people of teams or a schedule.

That mantra applies to website updates it seems as well….

And the thing with failing to manage your reputation is that from failing to pay attention, other opportunities are missed, just from sheer carelessness.

During the course of the day, Jess Duffin was playing in a WBBL semi final for the Melbourne Renegades – the simplest of simple promotion for AFLW, a chance to promote the multi sport player through free and mutual publicity.

Better yet, during the game, Duffin did an interview about the game, that gave a shout out to AFLW and her North Melbourne team-mates.

From a publicity point of view, this is easy stuff – you play the mutual publicity game, tweet out the grab, tag in the cricket and the football team, promote Jess and her story t the same time.

It’s the most basic of PR things to do on social media, and yet….

It was left to the Channel 7 cricket account to tweet out the grab, doing AFLWs job for them, and that was that….no support for Duffin, no promotion, not even typing out a good luck message.

From a PR perspective, this is as easy as your job can possibly get if you are paying attention, and its now completely passed them by.

Even more damning, Brooke Lochland suffered an injury during the Western Bulldogs practice game and no one either on the Bulldogs website, Twitter feed or any “official” channels deemed it worthy of reporting.

It’s hard to imagine any sport at any level losing their leading goal scorer (or whatever metric is used to measure scoring) without some kind of update to the progress of the injury.

Was it a knee? An ankle? Concussion?

High school games provide injury updates with more purpose and clarity than a supposedly officially funded branch of a major sporting league that trumpets once a year “this is your home”

Again, to tie it back to PR, there was no one in official capacity to provide “news” if something significant happened.

This doesn’t just mean suffering an injury – everything is taped these days, every highlight is provided, from grade school to the pros, hoping to capture that one play, that one moment that promotes your sport or goes viral.

More importantly, in building the failed sense of community from season 2 back into season 3, clips, photos of the players meeting fans, a collation of the day, these were easy things for official AFLW channels to aim for.

Instead all we got from the day was a PR disaster, more of the same apathy and failings.

These aren’t impossible goals, not affected by budgetary constraints or beyond the PR staff – it takes one committed person (and let’s be honest, there are volunteers who would co-ordinate) to strategically man the day, and co-ordinate a sense of occasion.

All it takes is for someone, somewhere, to take 5 minutes to connect the PR dots and re-establish the most basic of goodwill.

And yes, the clubs did try their best, with the Lions showing the game on their Facebook page and some teams providing updates, but the league still needs that central hub.

That basic PR respect that sports extend their participants, that central point where all information is easily accessible, or it is not truly engaging.

It’s also disrespectful to its participants that their athletic accomplishments, even in practice games, don’t receive that over-arching league acknowledgement, that their participation exists in a vaccum, a sporting tree falling in a forest with no one watching.

On a day where the WBBL Semi Final finishes went viral, AFLW fell even further behind in the publicity game, and it was another self-inflicted blow.

The WBBL knows how to play the publicity game – as soon as Ash Barty gave the Brisbane Heat a shout out, they are prepared with a retweet and the mutual publicity game.

AFLW doesn’t even have an engaged and involved social media presence – it’s terrifying that in season 3, we can’t get these PR basics right.

Failing to clear the lowest of low promotional bars is an ominous sign for season 3, and we haven’t even hit day one yet…

I’ll be something that you do

The contrast in failing to provide basic updates is in contrast to the promotional blitz that is coming and is happening around AFLX.

AFLX is already in full teaser trailer mode, and takes every opportunity to steal the promotional spotlight, even in the face of resentment and apathy.

The PR contrast is significant, given that two summers in a row AFLX has had breathless news updates centred around nothing more than the color of the football.

It was silver, now it’s pink, Stevo is outside Marvel Stadium with a live update…

In the space of just one hour, AFLX launched two teaser trailers, one showing someone drawing the cartoon artwork for the posters, then said same person showing said same artwork to a cooing Jack Riewoldt.

That was on top of endless speculation on mythical, made up teams – who’s going to be drafted into AFLX teams! Will Nat Fyfe draft Jordan De Goey!

Tom Browne has an update at 6….

It’s an interesting strategy that a mythical, symbolic team drafted for one night only with no genuine players gets a greater sense of preview and “anticipation” and discussion than real AFLW teams playing for something that matters.

AFLXs PR strategy is to overwhelm, to portray confidence in the face of apathy, to bludgeon through with noise and overwhelming volume of content.

To tie into AFLWs promotional woes, like it or not, we live in the content era, and the need to constantly provide it in a crowded marketplace is a PR imperative.

It’s one of the reasons AFLM has spaced things out across the year in order to have constant updates – even if that is as basic as new haircuts at pre season training.

AFLX has become an AFLM HQ summer filler, it’s go to content provider, no matter the little substance provided – color of footballs, the most speculative and tenuous of lists (who in your club would be good at AFLX! Tom Browne may surprise you!) and vague lists of countries that AFLX might be good for.

Any time a kid eats a hotdog at a game, you can bet there will be a photo posted somewhere.

The only people who truly support AFLX are those financially invested or within the industry, the relevant journalists or players (hello Patrick Dangerfield) encouraging people to “give it a go” or “it’s for kids, whats the harm!”

Those same players and industry involved participants of course haven’t extended that PR courtesy to any AFLW event since the All Star games.

No matter what promotional strategy AFLW adopts (save the jokes for the moment) it would still mean a lot for a male player to be vocal in support of the competition, and for that support to be vocally re-iterated by official channels.

Instead, Patrick Dangerfield is used as the vocal promoter for AFLX, the instant PR quick fix that whoops and hollers and then means nothing.

AFLX can’t ever aim to have a soul, it’s an instant hit of gratification, at best, so that makes it easy to market, theoretically.

It can be anything it needs to be in the moment, it can promote anything it wants, it can associate itself with any buzzwords it wants, it can draw on any number of resources that it wants to promote its own mythology.

AFLW is still, 3 seasons in, struggling to impart a consistent message of what it wants to be, to the point that the messaging is muddled and confused and officially no can be bothered to try at times.

From a PR point of view, AFLX will never die of apathy, because it’s going to scream its message from the rooftops, and that publicity message can be changed at anytime.

It’s going to be tweaked until someone, somewhere, some metric will be used to proclaim AFLX is somehow a success, even if it’s just one shot of a kid on a beanbag smiling.

When AFLX is getting press releases for ball color changes, and AFLW can’t co-ordinate its marketing and websites to give you teams, you have to wonder if anything has truly changed in season 3….

If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe

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One of the great arguments in PR that occurs from time to time revolves around the open platform nature of social media.

The great question revolves around putting your brand out there for public discourse, and whether to let conversation, comments and commentary flow freely.

There are advocates to opening a brand up to even the most strident of criticism because they feel it’s the best way to learn – believing that open advocacy is the best way to correct any flaws and that such things would happen anyway, that shutting down conversation is inherently misguided.

Even those who advocate open discourse would acknowledge however that it is negligent sometimes not to change the conversation.

We’ve talked often on this blog about reputation management, the day-to-day management of your brand, the words associated with it, and the need to maintain your role in the marketing conversation, to not let things drift.

AFLW still hasn’t got the reputation management of their marketing right, even in the midst of a very positive week for their brand.

No one should undersell the importance of getting a 4 year deal for TV rights, a deal that ensures AFLW will be visible on Fox Footy, variants of Channel 7 (pending being bumped for the Jungle Book) and the streaming service Kayo.

This is positive news, a positive message to sell.

They even seemed to correct one of last seasons most egregious marketing mis-steps by interviewing Erin Phillips on the website as a follow-up action to the TV deal news.

It was amazing that last season, when they had Phillips as one of the most famous sportswomen in the country, they used her in no ads, no launch material, didn’t use her as a focal point, and basically did nothing with her talents.

It’s no secret that Australian advertisers are still ambivalent to promoting female athletes outside of narrow marketing spheres, and Phillips would have been the perfect marketing poster child to go into new marketing avenues and opportunities.

To be truthful, Australian advertisers and marketers are still reluctant to market female athletes, and no matter how they choose to word it, they are still of the opinion that female athletes don’t have the individual recognition or fan base or visibility to sell product.

Phillips could have been used much better to break this barrier down and be bigger than the sport, and those opportunities could have been taken had AFLW had more surety and belief in itself.

In fairness, there are baby steps being taken – AFLW has increased its social media presence and are trying to market better – ticking into season 2, the AFLW website was only being updated once ever 4 days, and that has greatly (by urgent necessity) improved.

The TV deal, to tie back, is vitally important – the details will be fascinating to see, in terms of it gives AFLW the opportunity to make programmes that normalise the league as part of the calendar, an AFLW review programme for instance.

Messaging and advertising influences culture, and social change comes from not just making a one off spot for advertisers, but living what you say, and challenging the online trolls and getting on message is entirely possible.

The opportunities missed in season 2 can be fixed, and a TV deal with long-term surety can only be a positive….

And yet….

Straight ahead, no turning back

We spoke in the last blog post that the greatest marketing strategy AFLW can invoke this year won’t involve a variant of using the word “create” on a banner or any ad campaign (though the latter is still important).

Truthfully, the single greatest step the league can take forward this year is to challenge the trolling, the negativity and the persistent criticism that comes with any online announcement or post about AFLW.

We spoke last year about how Sarah Perkins welcome to Hawthorn message was hijacked on social media by Hawthorns own fans and how Herald Sun letter writers got far too much import into the leagues direction.

When Mark Robinson wrote THAT article last year on AFLW, there was no official response, no one willing to question the inaccuracies and mistakes within the article.

When Mo Hope had her clash with Mick Malthouse, Malthouse had in his corner Jason Akermanis and the old guard of AFLM football.

Now the TV deal announcement got an open forum for male fans to do as they do, particularly under the Foxtel announcement, and post everything you can imagine.

It’s an important juncture for AFLW in Season 3, and another season simply can’t drift by with isolated pockets of players and alternative media fighting the PR fight.

AFLW can implement marketing strategies that are granular, that understand the demographic that watches its own product, that come up with a unique voice that understands the concerns of the fan base.

It’s possible with a granular approach to continue promoting the positives of the sport (kids meeting their heroes, individual excellence, and fan accessibility among others) with a proactive approach to its critics that provides a clear message that the days of trolling are over.

AFLW participants, and female footballers in general, by research, don’t feel supported in the main by the league or respected as athletes.

Another season drifting by amidst a cloud of marketing negativity and apathetic messaging could see young fans and participants drift towards other sports that are more willing to support them.

AFLW has a significant problem which it still hasn’t tackled – wasting an entire season neglecting its own reputation management and lacking surety in its own product after one game emboldened its critics.

Male fans are able and allowed to criticise AFLW in ways that simply don’t happen with other female sports, able to show disrespect to the league without anyone speaking out in response.

This extends not just to fans, but old AFLM players and participants, who are given the aforementioned space in media to criticize the product, to demand rule changes, to opine on concussions and knee injuries and the quality of play as if their opinion is important.

It sounds a lot to ask, that in the space of a short summer season to take on this embedded hierarchy where the opinions of a Malthouse, a Kennett, a Cornes or an Akermanis are allowed to speak on a league that will never be to their tastes.

The league needs to do it however, because to tie into the first part of the post, everytime a Malthouse gets a page in the Herald Sun to talk about how AFLW should be more like netball, it re-inforces advertising prejudices that exist, it affects things in ways people don’t necessarily realise.

A reset for AFLW in season 3 shouldn’t just stop at press releases.

Day to day, AFLW needs to be bolder, and re-assert its right to exist as a part of the sporting landscape.

AFLW needs to be conscious that its fan base is savvier than they believe – that simply putting a product on air isn’t everything, that the messaging they send out daily on their own product is being absorbed by potentially young participants.

The message sent out from AFLHQ and it’s past participants and bastions of male exclusivity is still that you aren’t good enough to play our game unless WE approve, unless we set those standards for you, you must continue to alter for our approval.

This year, more than ever, it’s time for the league to market itself with surety and self confidence, because if they won’t do it, it’s hard to know who will be there for the fight in a few years time.

Through it ain’t through now

Purely for a marketing comparison, the AFLW TV deal came in the same week as a mini AFLX teaser blitz, with suitably leaked hyperbole to the appropriate journalists.

Through idling summer journalists looking for easy copy, AFLX is able to get positive coverage for very little tangible information.

In the Herald Sun print version, the AFLX coverage was closer to the back page than the AFLW TV announcement, relegating tangible news and genuine PR behind speculation and teaser trailers for things that are unlikely to happen.

In marketing, AFLX promotion has become the ultimate blank canvas for lazy journalism – assumptions are filled in, in the absence of real news.

Lance Franklin is captaining “Team Goals!” – see, it’s easy, there’s no validity to any of it, it’s a mythical product, something that doesn’t require a specific marketing plan when Jay Clark et al are doing that job for you.

The marketing blitz posited somewhat uncomfortably that the Indigenous team would be known as “Team Skill” (from the same pool of marketers that believe all Indigenous players are magicians) and that the marketing would revolve around superheroes and caricature posters.

Aside from the cynicism, you can say that AFLX has an un-earned swagger and self confidence.

When we talked about Season 2, and the lack of marketing surety, that’s something AFLX has apparently never had a problem with.

AFLX will simply continue to change the buzz words over and over until something sticks, they don’t lack confidence to push this product.

They are actively seeking sponsors with buzz words and cross promotions that are fanciful, and throwing ideas out over and over.

It’s a marketing effort they don’t put in with AFLW – with AFLW they immediately discuss why things can’t be done, with AFLX they discuss with sponsors some mythical New York tournament dream.

The diffence remains genuinely frightening for those who believe in female sports.

The more worrying thing is that in the midst of that spurt of nonsensical summer hype, there was talk of a 300K pot of money available to participants just to play AFLX under a Marvel designed jumper.

From a marketing point of view, this night of FUN (thanks Brad Johnson) is only being designed to create a showreel to sell around the world of AFLX, that’s understandable, but it’s an unproductive long term spend.

It’s strange to us on a basic level that they would choose to make this kind of investment in a disposable product such as AFLX when country football, Tasmanian football and AFLW could use the money more productively.

Those far flung rugby fields in Hong Kong must be really lucrative.

Of course, last year the AFLX “Xs”, the giant Xs behind the goals, had a construction and transportation cost around the grounds that eclipsed the entire marketing budget for AFLW Season 2, as we’ve discussed before.

Far be it from us to want to see AFLW shoe-horned into a night of AFLX (that’s a very slippery slope, given there’s pressure on certain events to transition to AFLW rather than full football anyway) we’d never begrudge AFLW players getting paid in any way possible.

A tournament with 300K prize and participation money and deals for AFLW players?

How forward a step would that be in marketing female sports?

That could with the right strategy go around the world as publicity, rather than spending it on a night of AFLX that will forgotten as soon as Brad Johnson stops screaming about how much fun everyone is having.

AFLHQ is the ultimate in self credit, no blame employees, and they remain conscious of their legacies and tying themselves to projects that work – accepting credit for the work of others.

It remains bizarre that rather than choosing to self promote your legacy as the pioneer of a made up game ultimately doomed to failure, to be the self promoter of teaser trailers to Jay Clark, rather than the promoter of womens sports, is genuinely strange.

It’s negligent, it’s a mis-understanding of the sports marketing landscape, and it’s ultimately self defeating.

At a time when sports marketing is leaning to marketing authenticity, hitching your PR legacy to a made up product is a strange choice.

Standing next to the launch of Team Skill or Speed or Fluff or Ruff at the AFLX launch instead of milking the credit for a significant, potentially (devil in the details) game changing TV announcement, it goes against all PR instincts that AFLHQ normally has.

A league that wasted a chance to promote Erin Phillips in every possible way has a sure marketing plan that if they spend up big and scream loudly, AFLX will take off.

The disparate marketing plans and the spending of prize money to get an evening of Lance Franklin and shots of AFLX to “sell” around the world should be disheartening to AFLW fans.

As long as it exists and takes up resources, AFLW is still waiting to be allowed to dare to create….

And I hate to say that I won‘t care for it…

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We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing reputation management – the day-to-day management of your brand that informs the public what you stand for (or what you don’t stand for).

We’ve spoken before that reputation management isn’t about one of gestures, skywriting messages or even a blitz of advertising, it’s about caring constantly for your brand, caring about every tweet, every word, taking the time to understand your stakeholders.

It’s been roughly one year since we started talking about marketing and publicity for AFLW, round about the time our PR firm received a glittering press release that James Brayshaw was commentating on the EJ Whitten Legends game, but didn’t get anything about the Womens State of Origin game.

Since then, it’s been well documented that the day-to-day reputation management of AFLW from AFLHQ has been derisory and apathetic, the competition treated like a burden, a problem to solve.

When we started writing about the travails of AFLW marketing back in the day, we had specific marketing goals, those goals around things like personalization, niche experiences and specifically tailor apps around teams and players.

It quickly became clear as Season 2 unfolded those goals weren’t happening – in fact, the official marketing for the season got no further than a lacklustre “Dare to Create slogan”, some skywriting, a W on a wall and an ad campaign which reheated the usual “barrier busting, glass ceiling shattering women” mantra of Season 1.

By the time Carlton and Collingwood had finished Game 1 and the league crumbled in the face of the fearsome demographic that is Herald Sun letter writers (and commercial television pressure) they lost their marketing purpose, and spent the rest of the year lurching into crisis.

We’ve covered that before of course, the lighting budget, the memo, the Missy Higgins rain out – it wasn’t the most pleasant of seasons to document from a PR point of view, a genuine marketing disaster.

While there are still growing frustrations with AFLW marketing (even launching the AFLW season with a power point rather than a video presentation felt frustrating and careless) there are positives going into the new season, if people are willing to learn and grow.

Season 3 gives a chance to hit the marketing reset button and tap into the humor, passion and alternative media support that is out there.

AFLW season 2 was gripped by a sense of promotional insecurity – the league was almost apologetic for its own existence.

Such is their promotional insecurity and lack of vision, that AFLW can hit a marketing reset simply by portraying far more confidence in its own product that it did last season.

Simply by promoting players over “that vision thing”, simply by creating more content, simply by getting their own players onto individual podcasts, and simply by believing in what they are selling.

Marketing womens sports isn’t especially difficult, but it does need to have a sense of self-confidence against THOSE male sports fans who will use social media platforms to enforce their own biases.

Stripping everything back in a marketing sense, the two AFLW marketing avenues to pursue this season are emphasising role models (for their play, not for their barrier busting qualities – that trope is played out) and working with AFLW clubs to support their own individual marketing strategies.

Neither of those things require major budgetary input – in fact they can work together, given simply having small girls meet their heroes is a relatively easy marketing goal to capitalize on.

We spoke last year about how the league should have taken every opportunity to show girls getting autographs at the end of games, every photo of someone meeting their heroes, and how easy that is to showcase.

The leagues marketing insecurities prevented them from fully capitalizing on the high-profile of Erin Phillips, and that she is more or less on the sidelines in all ad campaigns is genuinely bewildering.

The tweak in this is that the league has been keen to portray every single female player as some sort of barrier buster, talking about their other sports and their kids and their job at Coles, that they aren’t conveying enough information about their athletic abilities.

Marketing female sports is about making the participants feel valued, and that this season would be important strategically to at least portray a sense of confidence and belonging to the AFLW community.

Since it’s become a negative experience for those who wish to play and support AFLW, the simplest of PR goals this season, before we even think about apps and personalised experiences, is to come up with a way to take away the negativity.

The league has so many imperfections that supporting the product has been about fighting the good fight, defending the league against trolling.

Promoting positive stories, retweeting positive stories about football at lower levels, engaging with grass-roots teams and reinforcing the sense of community that was lost in season 2 are simple marketing steps to combat negativity.

The league isn’t confident enough (or on established evidence competent enough) to come up with an ad campaign that create challenging social conversations (a la the IcelandAir or Serena ads) just yet.

Taking that out of the marketing equation, stripping it back earlier, they need to be aware of untold and unique stories (Courtney Gum would have been perfect) and celebrate the big moments.

Celebrating the big moments isn’t just tweeting “Look! Brooke kicked 7!” – it’s about integrating them into the story of the league, into the marketing, responding to what is actually happening.

And that also extends to the humor of the league – put the Sauce Bar on the front page (or at least, do an article on it), explain why Pepa eating a burrito is funny, showcase the sense of humor of Lily Mithen.

Don’t be afraid to put these things on the front page of the main website – if there is an AFLW story on the main page, it always seems staid or out of a press release, it doesn’t really reflect the humor and passion of the fans.

Also, the league shouldn’t be afraid to innovate with its sponsors – the sponsors can do some heavy lifting (and to tie into what we will talk about below) and they can work with AFLM players to co-brand and work on innovative strategies.

The league has an opportunity to market and repurpose its strategy – the negativity of Season 2 and the ill feeling towards AFLHQ can’t be changed.

Season 3 can still be a positive experience – can still be a marketing success, if there is a collective will and proper strategies implemented.

But there is one issue to solve…

So much on my mind that I can’t recline….

That all said, there’s a much deeper problem that’s holding the league back – and its something no ad campaign, glitzy slogan, Sharni Layton skits or unique merchandising opportunity can fix.

Until the league finds a strong, supportive voice from AFLHQ and AFLW officialdom, it is going to be a league of gestures, photo opportunities and slogans that lack impact.

We talked above about the loss of community through indecision in season 2, since AFLW fans were forced to almost justify their love and passion for the league, in face of a blizzard of ill-informed commentary and desultory support for the product.

This is especially important since the Herald Sun has began tapping into a consistent leitmotif of interviewing older male footballers and football personalities and letting them say whatever they want about AFLW without question or debate.

Take Peter Jess, who was able to very calmly have his view that concussions in womens football would create an “intergenerational nightmare” in which women would forget to pick up their kids from school.

I mean, they might even forget to make the mans tea when he comes home from work….

While Jess’s comments were so far out there as to be crazy even for hardcore Herald Sun readers, it struck a lot of PR nerves, in terms of this being an unchallenged view, that this was printed, read, digested and no one officially challenged it.

And when you look at the short history of AFLW, you find a consistent pattern of older football media and male personalities with something to say.

In all of those cases the lack of official voice undermines every lunch time conjured up slogan the league wants to associate itself with.

Whether that comment comes from Dermot, or Mark Robinson, or any number of Cornes (a hashtag of Cornes? We’ll work on that), or Jeff Kennett, or Jess or whoever, it is allowed to go through the usual cycles (article, comments, comments become letters page) without the usual 4th act of the cycle in which there is a strong response against the comments or opinions expressed.

It’s fine to say “we loves womens football! This is your home!” but when Mick Malthouse is able to say on a football panel with one of your marquee stars that “football is a mans game” and that women should play the modified equivalent of flag football, and there’s no challenge to that, the league is anything but your home.

Incidentally, Jason Akermanis was allowed unchallenged to state on national television that Mo Hope was “a bit sensitive” to criticism, so let that sink in.

The worst thing about the Malthouse comments (and his “clarification”) is the ongoing fact that even in season 3 of the competition, there is still a strain of punditry and comment that believes this league shouldn’t exist.

This wasn’t the case in season 1 or during the “All Star” game era where AFLM players were regularly tweeting personal support for the game and the league.

So where did that enthusiasm for the product go?

It went away when the league stopped believing in itself, sold itself short with the memo, sold itself short with a lack of confidence – the only way to get that back now is through vocalising it’s right to be here.

Meekness is not an option right now, retreating is not an option right now – leaving Mo Hope to fend for herself was disappointing, it undermines every slogan they can come up with.

When Gil McLachlan is walking out of the AFLW draft after pick 12, once the sandwiches are consumed and the photos are taken for the PR brochure, it’s definitely worth questioning the support given to this league.

That support isn’t just financial, it’s about encouragement, it’s about the sense of belonging – that support can’t just extend to “well we took a team photo and the women were in it!” – and not having anyone in AFLM (or AFLHQ officialdom) who fights for the league and it’s participants verbally.

That can’t be left to Susan Alberti and alternative podcasts anymore – the slogan driven rhetoric wears thin when the league blinks in the face of criticism.

The “ex male player is wisdom” entrenched into mainstream media is difficult to crack of course.

Until the league is able to find a voice that is strong enough to be the league that it wants to be and not leave it to alternative media, podcasts and tweets to try to fight fire with fire, we’re stuck in a marketing holding position.

We talked above about taking away the negativity around AFLW, but without that official support, that negativity is always one interview with an old 70s footballer away.

We mentioned above the league might not be ready to engage in challenging social conversations about the role of women in sport, but that’s only because their marketing isn’t yet clever enough to work out how to do it.

That’s only in the sense of an ad campaign – day-to-day, their marketing needs to be sharper and smarter.

It’s time to have conversations that challenge the role of women in football – and if they don’t have the PR nous or ability to work that out yet, we’ll be summer filler content for some time to come…

 

Just take a little look from our side when you can

 

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Symbolic gestures in PR aren’t always meaningless – in fact, at times, symbolic gestures can be powerful and supportive, and they tie your brand to something powerful in the moment.

Where a lot of brands, firms and products can run aground is if they continually pivot and plan only symbolic gestures – it’s fair in a questioning age to ask for some meaning behind your gestures, particularly around ethics and fairness.

Since public relations can sometimes be criticised for being nothing but spin, and template apologies can come and go, it’s not unreasonable to truly question a brands commitment to its own words and values.

We’ve spoken on this blog at length before about AFLW, for instance, a brand and a product (there’s that word again) that speaks of female empowerment and barrier breaking glass ceiling shattering women, then delivers little of substance to back those claims up.

A league that provides symbolic support but not meaningful support – that promises a league that is “your home” then cuts the season and the lighting budget and the season itself for its female players.

We also wrote last year about how AFLHQ will promote in their official histories their contribution to fighting racism, but when confronted with Adam Goodes being booed, or the Heritier Lumumba documentary, the official response lacks substance.

By the by, Eddie McGuires hope “Heritier gets the support he needs” still resonates badly with this blog of course.

Thus while symbolic gestures in public relations are not wholly bad or wholly unappreciated – an important distinction – there is a time and a place to take those gestures and provide them with substance and support.

In the era of spin, nothing is truly private, and your communication style will always be critiqued – public relations after all is about how you interact with and manage the public.

Let your stakeholders down, and believe me, they notice.

In the wake of comments in the Senate from Fraser Anning about Muslim immigration, there was a symbolic and meaningful gesture pre-game in which Muslim players Bachar Houli and Adam Saad shook hands and embraced at the pre game coin toss.

The gesture had both meaning and symbolism, and later made the papers of L’Equipe in France and attracted a lot of mainstream attention.

It would behove us obviously to point out a couple of things: it meant a lot to the players involved and for AFLHQ it is one of the most potent images of the season.

Since it was a meaningful gesture to the parties involved, you would have expected the support to be meaningful in return if the gesture is criticised….and it didn’t take long to test that theory…

On the podcast run by Grant Thomas, Mike Sheahan and Sam Newman, Sam Newman declared he found the gesture by Saad and Houli divisive not inclusive and that “there are 600,000 Muslims in Australia, they share no common interest with what we’re on about.’

Most critiques of Newman at this point mention the man, his age or other aspects of his personality, but since this is a PR themed blog, we’ll stick to the messaging and his brand as much as possible.

There’s two things to explore out of Newmans comments – the value of symbolism as discussed above, and the theory that clubs, leagues and players should “stick to sports” and not engage in social commentary or actions.

To deal with the latter first, Newman has long been an advocate that the league especially and it’s participants should stick to sports – and been a critic of any overt display of politics or social activity for the league.

The rationale (and it’s often quoted on slow news days by the Ritas and Bolts etc) is that people go to the game to enjoy the game, not be lectured by political messages or social activity.

It’s an interesting argument with many flaws – firstly, espousing that view ties yourself to a political point, a conservative one.

Newman as we discussed before uses a platform on a network television show to espouse certain political views, advocate personal positions, and promote a certain brand of humor.

We discussed before that one response is that since Newman essentially IS the brand of the Footy Show, it’s one constant over the years, that in a mire of fading ratings, sticking to football might be a lesson he wants to learn?

Secondly, those who espouse those views are often nostalgic for the good old days, when football was much simpler and less complicated with messaging and social actions.

The misnomer in that of course is that if you go back in time, all clubs were tied to the identity, brand and politics of their suburb.

John Elliott will often be quoted in the “stick to sports” pantheon, when he represented a club tied in identity strongly to Liberal Party ideology in Carlton.

Eddie McGuire will at the drop of a hat tell you about Collingwoods “working class” roots and their representation of the working man in the day.

Harking for a day when football didn’t have a political identity seems like the kind of nostalgic wishful thinking that has crept into a lot of modern-day writing.

Newmans “response” on the Footy Show was to again state that the action of Saad and Houli was “divisive” and that he was “entitled to his opinion”.

At which point, strangely, Eddie McGuire invited the audience to give Newman a round of applause and everyone sort of awkwardly moved on.

The Footy Show itself would have read the reports during the week that – in a week when they achieved ratings of just 120000 in Melbourne, an all time low – that they are going to have change philosophy to have a future.

The Footy Show would know that chasing the “stick to sports” crowd or the older “we just want to have a LAUGH!” crowd isn’t working, and Eddie McGuire would be conscious that the brand is dated and in need of a revamp.

The great irony is that the Footy Show as a brand is too divisive to survive, and might have to make social changes to try to appeal to a wider audience, might have to change its focus…

The second point to discuss today is around the lack of response to Newmans comments, particularly from Richmond, Essendon and AFLHQ.

As we discussed earlier, AFLHQ has a reputation in PR circles at being masters of the grand gesture that doesn’t mean too much – colored laces or a themed round or something along those lines, a come and go gesture of support for a cause.

We discussed above, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a symbolic gesture at heart.

People immediately get cynical about a symbolic gesture, but sometimes it is enough to just do something to indicate support.

Even Newmans Footy Show has made symbolic gestures to particular causes at times when appropriate.

In this case, AFLHQ said and did nothing about Newmans comments, as they often do, under the guise of “not giving the story oxygen”.

The McLachlan administration are notoriously slow and unresponsive at times to social issues, needing a long lead in time to get everything legalled and checked with focus groups before responding to an issue.

The argument against “not giving a story oxygen” is one that people use often in situations like this, and it’s an interesting one to discuss, since to comment would have provoked said Ritas and Bolts to the typewriter to pen their template outrage articles.

It’s not one we agree with in this case, purely because it was made in direct response to a direct action on an AFLM football field, one that the AFLHQ will doubtless use to promote social inclusivity in brochures and annual reports for a while to come.

Had Newman made the comments unprovoked, the argument to ignore him would have been much stronger, but this felt like something that needed a response, given the nature of the gesture and where it took place.

It again paints the league as a league strong on symbolism, but slow on genuine action.

Neither Richmond or Essendon made any kind of public statement or social media comment on Newman either, which again was strange given the comments were directly in response to the actions of their own employees.

In fact, for anyone expecting some sort of direct action, one-two segments after Newmans non apology, the guest was Shaun Grigg of Richmond.

Football clubs are even more conservative than AFLHQ, terrified of “distractions” to an extraordinary degree, and even the most innocuous of media scrutiny.

There are public relations studies that show sporting clubs and their symbiotic relationship with media outlets create an inate conservatism – that everyone knowing everyone and not wanting to rock the boat due to the circle of friendships means someone like Newman won’t be criticised, lest it offend a close friend (or a friend of Newman), close a sponsorship opportunity or cause an issue down the line.

There’s also a school of thought that sporting clubs are so focused on athletic achievement, that their focus outside of their own world is very limited, and that something like Newmans comments might genuinely have passed the clubs by.

For a league that forged a lot of its identity on larrikins and characters, these days with so much content to fill, and so many cameras, even alleged poor body language, or smiling post game is somehow a controversy.

So football clubs will be as conservative as possible – they may make the odd social gesture along the way, and a lot of them are genuinely meant, but they are very carefully planned out and workshopped and focused grouped until they are as palatable as possible.

All football clubs – not just Richmond or Essendon – are incredibly conscious of social media posting, aware that one inadvertent tweet can cause a major issue.

Given that streak of conservatism and outright fear, it’s probably not surprising neither Essendon or Richmond made official comment on the Newman issue, but it was still disappointing.

Essendon spent the day after Newmans comments inviting fans to send in photos of dogs in Essendon jumpers, and Richmond sent instead press details about Nathan Brown doing a pre game lap of honor.

To tie into the notion of “stick to sports”, football clubs not commenting on certain issues again is a form of political comment.

Carltons absolute neutral statement on gay marriage was designed to be the most vanilla of vanilla non controversial press statements, and still caused furore, because no comment is still a comment, strangely enough.

We spoke before about AFLM players not speaking up to support their female players, and while different people have different tolerances to political statements and players speaking on social issues, this one felt like an opportunity to make a statement against the Footy Show, that was at the very least supportive.

It was even more strange and surprising that neither club commented on the level that showing support for their own employees in defence of an action that meant something to them would have seemed like a basic action to engage in.

“There was a few comments made during the week and it was a show of support for both clubs … to show how inclusive the AFL is and how united we are,” Saad said On The Mark.

That inclusivity and unity – again to be clear, not from the players involved, but the wider response – was tested by Newmans comments and the response was found wanting.

Unity of purpose and clarity of messaging are important PR concepts, and if the AFLHQ truly wants to promote it’s social inclusivity, it’s time to truly live that message, not only embrace it with gestures.