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….

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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.

 

 

We’re fighters, and this aint what we came for…

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Whenever someone pens an op-ed piece in the newspaper or online these days, the idea is to create engagement – clicks, comments, anything that can generate interest, positive or negative.

The Murdoch template is strong throughout news content – stories always have something to respond to, the world is black and white, and nuance is rarely a consideration.

Opinion is king – even if the debate points you wish to raise are ill-considered or poorly researched, it’s still an article that is there to be clicked on,

That ultimately is what matters – it’s existence as content is enough.

And the pressure for content is relentless.

In terms of public relations, we’re equally guilty of finding the quickest way of getting our message in front of people.

We are time conscious, we speak of cut through, and when we put items out, we are often astonished by how some of our poorer ideas become the most engaged with.

It’s an imperfect science but it is an art form to make something almost deliberately bad just to get reactions.

Writing an article with AFLW that offers expert opinion in the URL? Without offering any expert opinions?

But something guaranteed to get those trolls clicking?

Can knock that up on a lunch break….

Mark Robinson’s Saturday opinion on AFLW has already became infamous in a short space of time, the final straw in a relentless blitz of negativity around the league and its product that seems to never cease.

It also was ill-timed – it came during a week where Josh Jenkins, he of the team that promotes “we fly as one”, tweeted something that generously could be described as unsupportive of his fellow clubmates on the AFLW Adelaide Crows.

It also came the day after the launch of the AFL “Mini Legends” ad from NAB that featured no AFLW mini legends, and the realisation as an AFLW fan that we’re so beaten down that a 5 second mini Daisy Pearce in an ad for a corporate bank would have been taken positively.

And when we can’t even get that well…

In the midst of battling AFLHQs ongoing attempt to shrink and pink AFLW, it’s been depressing that, as female sports fans, we can’t rely on male players to offer us support it seems when we need it most.

After all, it’s fair to say as female sports fans, we’ve overlooked a lot of indiscretions far worse than “not enough goals in the game” and kept supporting mens sport, however reluctantly.

Be it an Adelaide Crows player or the lead writer of the Herald Sun, this support isn’t being returned now by those on the AFLM inside….

There is sometimes a notion when critiquing an article about Mark Robinson that the man himself will be the focus of the critique, an examination of his “6 beers at the footy” style of presentation, but that isn’t the case for this blog post.

We’re sticking strictly to the article on this one, and how it came across, particularly that Robinson didn’t truly think through the consequences of his words.

Those consequences? Trolls. Lots and lots of trolls.

Robinson’s Saturday article on the woes of AFLW came with a headline and splash graphic that suggested over-promotion is the main reason for the “problems” AFLW face.

That was a lot of the articles thinking – that a mythical and non-existent advertising blitz somehow created over-expectation for the league that can’t be lived up to.

The relevant parts to Robinson’s article as it pertains to this blog revolve around the promotion of the league.

Robinson claimed the league was over-hyped, over promoted and somehow this relentless blizzard of promotion had led to many of the issues AFLW faces today, creating “rock stars”.

Regular readers would know that simply isn’t true – the launch for AFLW season 2 featured a website that was updated every 4 days as late as mid January, a W being put on a wall (which didn’t feature on the main website as a story) and skywriting on the day of the season opener.

We suggested at the time skywriting, as the song goes, is big and bold, until the smoke is cleared….

In the build up to the Fremantle vs Collingwood game, to prove they had promoted the game, the AFL Twitter feed sent to us a tweet that was instead a 90 second video of Optus Stadium with no mention of the teams (until the very end) and no shots of any women playing.

Rock stars indeed…

The lack of promotion got to the point it was raised as a concern and question to Nicole Livingstone at the AFLW Season Launch event, and she claimed they had a “digital media strategy” (ie – we sent a tweet out every so often), and that Season 2 didn’t need as much promotion because people were aware of the product.

Compare and contrast to AFLX, which featured launch events, press kits, teasers of the rules, a full clip of Patrick Dangerfield “grilling” Gil on footys “new format”, a live cross to the fixtures launch, and at least 3 launch events (plus to this day Gil teasing events in Hong Kong etc) and you can see what happens when proper promotional pushes are put in place by AFLHQ.

Overpromoted? The women couldn’t get a lighting budget, have been undermined by the lack of internal support, proper staffing and proper planning.

Overpromoted? Building on the success of the 2015 All Star Game, the 2017 edition didn’t even get an ad campaign, and as we’ve discussed many times, our PR firm got a press release about James Brayshaw commentating on the Whitten Legends game, but nothing about the womens game.

Overpromoted? That same night, the Under 18 curtain raiser wasn’t streamed officially, and unofficial attempts to offer commentary were rejected.

To suggest that this leagues issues stem from over-hype, rather than a failure to plan or commit to a vision is insulting on many levels.

It puts the blame for the leagues failings back on the women – and what mythical metric under that system could they succeed?

Is there something measurable in which they could succeed? A level they could fulfil that would put the trolls back in their box?

To turn things back to PR, Robinson lamented “they (AFLHQ) marketed too hard and created personalities and expectation when the lack of talent was soon obvious” – which suggests that the league set up to create role models shouldn’t have attempted to create role models?

That was the initial aim of the league after all, to increase junior participation.

The “rock stars” Robinson came from had increased their profile through two well received All Star games.

In fact, the 2015 All Star game between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs outdrew the AFLM game between Adelaide and Essendon that week in the TV ratings in Victoria, with images of Tayla Harris kicking for goal going viral on social media.

It would have been negligent to not at least promote some individuals on the back of those games, and those impressive ratings.

At the end of season 1, the leagues best promotional asset was Erin Phillips.

She became a personality because of her talent, and that was the point of the league.

Over time, each season would create its own stars, and it’s own heroes – to make a blanket statement like “they marketed too hard” is ridiculous.

If anything, Phillips could have been used a lot more.

To exclude her from the promotional material for season 2 was beyond careless.

And if Robbo is basing his entire thesis of over promotion and exposure on the first season struggles of Mo Hope, well, what does that say that a singular player having a bad season is somehow proof that the entire league is flawed….

Got a feeling it’s a mixed up sign

It’s also worth noting the article opens with a paragraph asking to, as a man, to be allowed to discuss the issues of AFLW without being called a sexist or dismissive, a plea to offer an opinion without gender being considered.

The trouble with that starts with the outlet of communication – the Herald Sun itself. Making a plea for fairness and understanding in the Herald Sun is rich with its own problems and issues.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Herald Sun featured an “amusing” cartoon comparing Colin Sylvia to Spiderman after he stalked his girlfriend.

It’s also the paper that made a bad “beaten” pun about Shannon Grants domestic violence court case.

Most notably, Robinson’s article came just a few days after the Herald Sun devoted the splash part of its letters page to a discussion of AFLW.

The comments that made the paper from readers included a comment that AFLW existed so manly women could be admired by their girlfriends, and another that simply lamented the loss of the old days when men played footy and women ran the canteen.

Unmoderated, the comments section of any AFLW article on either the Herald Sun or News Limited website will range from someone mocking it with comments akin to “yawn” or “no-one cares”, through to all the genuinely offensive stereotypes you can imagine (and indeed, have printed in the letters section).

It doesn’t matter what the topic is, any mention of an AFLW player on any subject will have unmoderated comments section, and the same emboldened trolling on every single article.

So for said outlet to let a writer begin an article with a plea for fairness and understanding from female readers already grates from a communication point of view.

Why extend fairness to a medium that will (doubtless) continue to publish letters pages prominently in which you can say anything about the women who play AFLW?

Robinson also mentioned the women appearing on TV and radio next to a carefully placed quote about “the AFL creating the beast” from an un-named “club executive”

This ignores the mutual PR relationship that TV shows like Robinson’s show AFL360 get from having female players on.

At its lowest ebb, the Footy Show ended a season with a heavily promoted appearance of Erin Phillips on the panel and ended the Grand Final footy show with Eddie McGuire grinning inanely after the AFLW players concluded the show with a routine in the revue.

It’s a strange thing for someone in media to not understand the mutual PR relationship between TV and AFLW players, and almost phrase things like these uppity women are pushing themselves onto the 360 set (where they are sometimes even allowed to sit at the desk, but not always).

The worst part of Robinsons article though was when he said the women involved were “lashing out” at the AFL, and even worse, he suggested the women involved should “chill out a bit”.

It’s impossible to imagine a more condescending way to end the article than to say “chill out a bit”.

For an article that opened with a plea as a male writer to be given the opportunity to discuss womens football without being called sexist or dismissive to include the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head and a “calm down dear” is beyond insulting and outright rude.

Even taking that out of the equation, the notion that the players should chill out a bit is quite the way to wrap up and sum up the womens fears about the way the league is going.

Chill out when the lead writer at the biggest selling tabloid in Melbourne describes your competition as “quaint” and “an exhibition tournament?”

It’s almost impossible to imagine that players in any sport expressing a point of view about the future of their league aren’t encouraged, but instead told to “chill out”, but here we find ourselves.

Chill out when not one figurehead person fights for the league or defends beyond Gils glib monotone PR.

Chill out when the rules aren’t even in place for the new season, when the league lacks a structure, when AFLW players have made personal sacrifices for a competition they don’t even know the starting date for or the number of games they will play.

Chill out when the Herald Sun prints “stay in the canteen” as a feature letter…

Mark Robinson should be assured that his article wasn’t judged as written by a male or dismissed for that – it was judged because it was a terrible piece of writing, one that only creates clicks and encourages another round of trolling.

At a time when the league needs to build or die, on a day when the W League got itself onto ESPN+ in the USA, the notion of “chill out” isn’t one that works anymore.

This league needs to build, and it needs a more optimistic outlook, communication strategy and PR planning than “everybody relax”…

At the end of a week where we looked to the AFLM community for support, we got “chill out”….no more communication need be entered into….

 

Life seems to fly when you don’t understand it

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In the last couple of blog posts, we’ve touched on the notion of reputation management – the day-to-day management of your brand and reputation, the key themes people associate with your brand, and how important it is to be proactive in what you want your brand to represent.

We touched in the last blog around AFLW, and the lack of care taken in their reputation management, which has now lead to crisis.

AFLHQ were negligent in the day-to-day management of the reputation of AFLW, emboldened the trolls by disrespecting the sport and not defending it, and have created an us against them mentality that sets the league backwards.

That’s an example where, over time, a lack of care of reputation management has led to crisis.

Crisis management is normally much more sudden when it lands on an organisation, it normally comes out of nowhere, by definition of a crisis.

By definition, it’s unusual to see repeated poor communication and management like has happened with AFLW be the root cause of a crisis event.

Usually, a crisis event is much more sudden in its impact.

As a prediction, there will be a point sometime soon Nicole Livingstone or Gil comes out with a patronising “we appreciate the passion of the feedback” type statement. We digress.

In the immediate aftermath of Andrew Gaff breaking the jaw of Andrew Brayshaw, the West Coast Eagles were obliged to begin a strategy of crisis management – one that came out of nowhere, but one you would imagine clubs would have some training and preparation for.

To pick up some threads in regards to communication, the first tone that was jarring came in the immediate aftermath of the incident, not long after initial replays had gone around social media and the story began to pick up steam.

No more than 10 minutes later, commentator Nick Riewoldt and David King were having a conversation around Gaff being a “good bloke”, how it was “out of character” and that Gaff was “a leader” off the field.

Post match, Adam Simpson said in a press conference (reported in a since deleted tweet) that West Coast would “throw an arm” around “Gaffy”, and that he wasn’t sure if the incident was intentional.

Later, on Bounce, somewhere around the Golden Fist or someone doing laps in a go-kart, Jason Dunstall cut in to throw to David King interviewing Gaff, an interview that opened with King asking how out of character the incident was, closed with David King giving Gaff a hug, and then was tailed with a throw to an in studio to Cam Mooney saying “that doesn’t represent who Gaff is”

By the time Luke Darcy inexplicably mused on radio “it might not have been a punch”, there was an interesting thing going on and an interesting narrative developing.

To deal with all of this, it ties into a piece of communication that happens sometimes, and we’ve referenced it before, around the “good bloke” defence.

In the immediate aftermath of one of these incidents, the commentators will immediately turn the conversation into one of two narrative paths – mostly it revolves around out of character for player X, or of course, how player X should have the mythical book thrown at him.

In the fall out from last years Bachar Houli/character reference story, there was a lot of discussion about how awful the good bloke defence was and a dog act was a dog act, and yet in the fall out of the Gaff incident, the good bloke defence was in full effect.

It’s….something….

They present this good bloke defence almost as factual information, like there is a secret guide they all have, a plot chart of who is a good bloke and who isn’t.

To give an example, when it came to Lindsay Thomas David King was emotional and non negotiable that Thomas had to serve a suspension, that there was “no grey area”, but with Gaff he was upset and emotional about what a good guy Gaff was.

What was interesting in this – we’ve dealt before that stories in the AFL very quickly become out narrative. That’s how the AFLM media works, opinion is where the money is.

The narrative that was coming out in the immediate aftermath – peddled even in the opening bars of a Fox Footy comedy show – that Gaff was a good bloke/victim was fascinating to see.

It was fascinating from a communication point of view to see that narrative be utterly rejected in real-time on social media – there’s a disconnect between players and media and fans, and on this occasion it played out in real time.

David King even intoned today about social media needing to go easy on Gaff, when his role as a football commentator is to be hard to individuals for far less.

Provoke strong opinions is part of the reason he’s employed. That’s an interesting discussion point for another day, how people in media insert themselves into the story.

In terms of pure PR and communication, if there was a mutual attempt, however reflexive, of the Fox Footy narrative to shift to “Gaff is a good bloke”, it didn’t work, it made the situation far worse.

To launch into a “good bloke” defence as your same broadcast was showing the ambulance with Brayshaw in it being driven away from the stadium should cause some self-reflection on how quickly commentators attempt to drive the narrative and influence the unfolding story.

The good bloke defence being utterly rejected, as we said above, in real-time on social media, was something to see – in terms of PR, the rejection of an imposed narrative and forcing media to take more responsibility for their words has been a strong development as more cynicism with the AFLM MSM has crept in over the last few years.

It’s food for thought as media wants to take more control of the pre game and post game shows, and take people “inside” the game, and continue to seek out “provocateurs” like Kane Cornes.

They have to be prepared for stories to leave them behind at times – for narratives to unfold around them, and for social media to take their ideals and what they want to promote away from them.

Believe me, that scares them immensely…it scares them that their narratives are challenged, that the old ways are routinely debated away from them.

Even with the defensive strategy of “oh well, it sparks conversation”, it worries the MSM more than people could know, worries their PR departments how media narratives are now developing without their example.

To circle back, AFLW now exists outside of any official “barrier busting” narrative, with a much stronger alternative media presence than any official documentation.

This story went down a similar path. Good bloke? Didn’t stick, didn’t work….

And speaking of narratives getting away from people…

More sense than talking to human beings

It’s possible to examine the messages and narratives that took place on Sunday night of course, and even then, to discuss them in terms of people being in shock and not being prepared.

Since we’ve talked about reputation and crisis management on this blog in the last few posts, lets look at the brand of the West Coast Eagles going into today – one of their best players had broken an opposition players jaw, there was discussion about Gaff getting a standing ovation from the Eagles fans, and Adam Simpson hadn’t nailed the post match press conference.

If you take the brand of the West Coast Eagles, taking all pre-conceptions out of it, it was time today for some strong crisis management. It was a day to take control of the narrative and impart a clear message.

In terms of pure communication, the Eagles social media team had already got the day off to an interesting start, through tweeting out a rather joyous tweet about waking up after a big derby win.

While it’s easy to understand that the West Coast Eagles Twitter feed would by definition want to impart a positive message to its supporters, it was a mis-step in terms of reading the room and the tone they wanted to impart across the day.

There were more skilled ways to discuss the win, a better strategy to go with than that.

Controlling the narrative is, of course, a basic public relations skill. Even if the West Coast Eagles had by this afternoon lost control of the narrative and the King/Gaff interview came off badly, there was still time to regain some control of the narrative with a strong press conference today.

In the last blog, we spoke about Gil and his poorly thought out thought bubbles, how people weren’t sending Gil out prepared for questions or with the ability to sell his strategy in an articulate fashion.

Communication – yes, you can call it spin – is important because in both things we’ve talked about, Gil and the West Coast Eagles were through different circumstances late to the party in terms of getting their point of view out.

In terms of crisis management, they were coming from a way back – Gil had to respond to Daisy, West Coast to circumstances and a botched attempt (out of their control) in the aftermath to portray Gaff as a good bloke.

The narrative as we discussed above had got away from the Eagles – by the time CEO Trevor Nisbett stepped to the podium, it should have relatively easy to nail a coherent communication strategy.

That after all is what strong brands dealing with crisis management are prepared for. To think what they want to say through

There was almost only one option to be honest.

That strategy? We’re sorry, we’re really sorry, did we mention we’re sorry…

What unfolded was a terrible piece of communication, centred around two poorly constructed responses.

The first was a declaration from Nisbett that Gaff and Brayshaw were mates who had played golf 5 days ago.

So….that’s worse isn’t it? It was an un-necessary revelation to impart, since it now turns out he punched someone he’s friends with?

Trying to unpack how that actually helped anything or made things any better is hard to do. Why would you want your brand to be saying something like that?

It was a horrible thought bubble, an attempt to soften Gaffs reputation that failed miserably. It was a truly awful piece of PR that should never have been brought up on any level.

The second was the implication that Brayshaw was in “reasonable shape” – which anyone of course knows is not true.

Or it could have been the moment Nisbett couldn’t comment on which was a more serious loss, Brayshaw losing his season or Gaff losing his Brownlow chances. Either or…

So to break it down a little bit, and again, taking all pre-conceived notions about West Coast out of it, this was not the communication strategy they needed to go with.

The golfing story and any indication of a friendship between Brayshaw and Gaff is not the path down which to go when dealing with crisis management.

For one thing, it becomes the headline takeaway of the press conference, the narrative lead.

That should absolutely have been a clear focus on Brayshaw, his health and the extent to which West Coast are enquiring for his health and well-being.

Whatever strategy you wish to take, press conference, statement (not an Instagram story obviously, we covered that), whatever you wish to come up with, the narrative lead and the communication strategy is about your care for Brayshaw.

When you leave that room, that should be what you want your fans and people reading to leave with. When the golf anecdote is the front ending story, what people think about, the communication has failed.

Strong communication management should establish a position on the issues – a clear plan for your brand, and a strategic vision on what you want to sell to the public.

When the lead story out of your press conference, presented in the clear light of day, when the lead narrative is he actually punched his mate, it’s hard to think how your communication strategy could have gone much worse…

I look to you and I see nothing…

Nicole_Livingstone.jpg

One of the things we wrote about in the last blog was reputation management – the day to management of your brands characteristics, the images you want to conjure, the want you want to manage your own narrative.

There is very little let up in reputation management, particularly in the social media era.

Reputation management is difficult to manage – what words you think are associated with your brand may be a long way from reality. You may think you are a woke, socially conscious brand, an employer of choice, a proud brand for proud times.

Reputation management isn’t putting up a poster or a flier or changing your logo, and it has nothing to do with advertising – its about influence on your own story. It’s about trust, it’s about what would be the first thing people think of when they think of your brand.

Not your ad campaign, not your marketing, not what you think, but what they think, the stakeholders think….

In reality, if you aren’t searching your own brand regularly, if you aren’t paying attention to conversations, to stakeholders, to those affected by your every action, well, its almost impossible to turn it around.

Perception matters, no matter what you think of your own brand…

Dare I say, no matter what you are daring to create…

For those in AFLHQ, they believe that AFLW is still in day one, still a barrier busting glass ceiling shattering up and at em girls can do anything league full of barrier busting ceiling shattering women they can put on posters and throw an arm around for PR and social kudos at appropriate times.

When AFLHQ want to tell a story about AFLW, this is the story they tell – each commentary laced not with tales of elite athletes, not even talking in terms of sport or competition, but cross-country skiers and moms and postwomen and whatever job they want to mention.

On one memorable occasion, it took so long for Kelli Underwood (of ALL people) to list all the pre approved “previous sports” and fluff and stuff and nonsense from the AFLHQ approved bio, the Melbourne player had a shot at goal by the time she’d finished talking….

They also feel they can control it, pack it in a safely assigned summer slot. Summer content, just like AFLX.

Dare we say a gimmick tournament?

One that safely provides content, just in a pre approved slot where Roger Federer isn’t playing, AFLX isn’t on and the Big Bash isn’t hitting any sixes.

Nice and neat.

Just enough to get PR and social kudos. Just enough to have the launch, just enough to get themselves in some photos next to Katie Brennan at the launch, and just enough to tick over a couple of pages in the corporate brochure.

No more, no less. Done and dusted, all on their own time.

Channel 7 don’t mind some of that kudos too, but that’s usually only on the opening night of the season, after that it’s off to 7Mate with AFLW, lest it have to compete with a repeat of the Jungle Book, but we’ll get back to them later.

And there they wish to leave it – in their mind, that’s all the reputation management they need to give AFLW.

Enough mind and attention to put on the games, enjoy a few sandwiches, until the “real stuff” starts right boys?

AFLW has thus been left in the starting blocks as a competition, where fans are still expected to demand no more than “look what we’ve created!” and aspirations, dreams of better and, hell, a lighting budget are subsumed because there’s no care and attention beyond the promotional narrative of day one.

But something has happened along the way, and it ties back to reputation management we’ve covered a lot of this leagues travails along the way. The lack of care and attention to the All Stars game, the missed merchandising opportunities, the accursed memo, the lighting budget, Kane Cornes hosting a show on Womens Footy, Bec Goddard leaving the sport…

Each individual action has chipped away at the reputation of AFLW – through no fault of the players at all. While the league has been happy to take kudos for the social capital of the league, they have mis-managed the day-to-day running of the league to an appalling degree.

Want to know what the drafting and trading rules were for the new teams? They didn’t know. And that’s with 4 more teams coming in next year….

Hey, you over there, our potential new recruit from another sport? Want to play in our league! Well, it’s only 6 weeks long now, sorry, we should have mentioned that…

Want to know when the fixturing will be finalised….October? Maybe….might push it back to November?

Want to know the rules of the competition? Not sure, there might be a memo out next week, check with Channel 7…

Want to know the leagues grand marketing plan? Well….um…we stuck a W on a wall….what more do you want….

Trying to pin down the overall vision for AFLW is thus nigh on impossible.

Should you have had any faith in a grand public relations plan or strategy for the league, a clear pathway, a notion that this league would be allowed to grow, that they had ambitions for the league, well, they should have been long disabused a while back, but today put the cherry on the cake….

The vision has stalled at “Look what we made!” and “Look at the TV schedule for when Channel 7 let us play” – there is no revolution, no strategy beyond that. It’s a gimmick now AFLW, a calendar filler….

And today showed us exactly that….

Forever in debt to your priceless advice

The revelation that despite increasing the leagues teams from 8 to 10, AFLW would somehow combine that with fewer games (6 instead of 7) is a significant slap in the face.

The idea that somehow you grow a league through subtraction, that you tell potentially elite athletes you have them pegged as summer filler to play at the appropriate Channel 7 designated commercial juncture is insulting.

Grow the league through subtraction of games? How does that work? Your sponsors are going to love having less exposure.

We feel somewhat naive in many ways thinking of potential streaming options to broadcast games, of personalised apps, of niche opportunities for members.

AFLHQ won’t even let this competition stand up for itself against other sports, won’t promote the sport beyond its alloted and approved time slots.

We’ve spoken before that AFLHQ won’t think outside of their relationship with Channel 7, that they strangely let a commercial television network decide so much about their product, it’s bewildering.

There are many broadcast options for AFLW, many streaming options, many content hungry providers who could potentially broadcast AFLW.

Instead, Channel 7 get to dictate, get to designate a specially approved time slot in which it is “OK” to broadcast the games.

So much of this stems from TV and what we spoke about last time, the pernicious influence of 7 and their need for goals = ads. AFLHQ are still in the starting blocks again in their marketing and thinking – that they are lucky to just exist, be on TV, they don’t challenge, don’t think of broadcasting outlets.

Instead, it’s Channel 7, in that narrow, allowable TV window…..

And what about that cross code athlete you covet? You think they are going to be lured across with your shorter, lacking in ambition league? A league that won’t stand up for itself? A league with limitations?

When you shrink to the challenge of promoting womens sport, you think you can really go to the market place saying things like “this league is your home” and “this is our highest priority?” – with a straight face? Really?

And as for that aspirant womens coach – one of the things we wrote about previously was the networking opportunities that AFLW was meant to open up. It’s gone the other way, Bec Goddard lost to the sport but AFLM coaches and aspirants getting AFLW jobs because they know who’s doing the appointing.

Now they (if they ever get a job) get a shorter time period and season to communicate, meet people? Feel less important?

In PR we often talk about how our best laid aspirations falter with mis-management. Human beings falter in their communication, that’s understandable. But to claim “the league is your highest priority?” – the glib, passionless statement to try to make it go away – is a ridiculous piece of communication.

Also, as a digression, Craig Moore is right – shouldn’t the CEO of a major sport be more informed about his competition than to ponder the World Cup is a “four-week tournament”, ignoring the qualifiers that start around 2-3 years out?

Who’s running Gils PR department and his public proclamations these days? Is he feeling empowered to deliver ill thought out thought bubbles on every topic? Is there no prep that someone might ask him a question?

In the last blog post we talked about how AFLHQ had lost the ability to talk, to communicate, to spin or to control their own narrative – today was a prime example.

There was no communication strategy, no talking points to get through, not even a thought out phrase, no idea of going into the interview even vaguely informed.

And the less said about the bland, uninspiring, typed out by an intern “statement” from Livingstone, the better….it’s obvious by the way that all professional statements and crisis management strategies should be posted as Instagram stories, that’s how all the major leagues do it…

They lost the narrative to far more passionate, engaged and informed alternative media a long time ago, an alternative media that sees through the spin and now wants more than PR fluff and can see through the narrative and smoke screen that they want to create.

Not to mention the AFLW players palpable frustration on social media at the absolute dis-respect they felt and are feeling – far from feeling like barrier busting women, they feel like sideshow participants in a summer gimmick, second class citizens.

How can anyone be expected to genuinely feel women are important to this game when the fixture contracts, when everything is so vague, when the league goes into abeyance after such a short period of time.

When female coaches aren’t allowed into the fold, but male coaches get full-time opportunities, when the players are in open revolt, when fans have no faith in the future, there’s only so many times you can show a small girl with a footy in the Herald Sun before the gimmick and the PR photo stars to wear impossibly thin.

Reputation management? This is now crisis management, because in the traditions of “for the want of a nail”, the day-to-day reputation of the league was allowed to wither, wane and falter without anyone standing up for the women playing it.

An active sports league would seize this moment to professionally communicate, to assuage the fears, to listen, to engage, but there is no historical proof of AFLHQ listening to female fans, their own players, coming up with coherent marketing strategies.

If anything, their own actions, their own communications serve to talk the league down – the memo, the spirit of the game “initiatives”, the constraints they put on the league…even when they legitimately think they are “helping”, they are either deliberately blinkered or actively sabotaging the league…

Again, we’ll circle back to something we said in an earlier blog post – it was dis-spiriting during the memo days to see our most inspiring of leagues be told by men to look prettier and be more entertaining, like a vacuous entertainment property.

Today was the day that really hit home, and the anger is rising. Do they care? Will they change their narrative? It’s highly unlikely, and it’s getting scary….

It’s a PR entity now, not a sports league, and the realisation that’s what they were telling us all along is totally dis-spiriting….

 

Something sweet to throw away….

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Public relations are about telling stories: what does your brand aspire to be?

What words and images do you want your brand to be associated with?

What do you want your audience to believe? Can you engage your audience in a positive vision?

What phrases do you want to stick in their minds? How much do you trust your audience will follow you and believe in you?

Can you make them believe they are part of the vision of the future you wish to sell, that they are part of the transition, even when they aren’t? Can you take them on the journey of re-invention with you?

Once the best PR department in all of sports, AFLHQ has lost the art of basic communication – once the masters of spin, they’ve stumbled and tripped over themselves this year, failing to communicate a vision that their audience can buy into.

That vision that they’ve tried to sell is that AFLM is in trouble, that the game itself is mired in congestion and low scoring and that without radical intervention football itself won’t survive.

Why does there need to be new rules? Why aren’t these trial matches being broadcast or footage made available? What is so bad about the game that it needs this revolution? None of those has been explained, or at the very least none of this has been sold properly to the masses.

For something as emotive as sport, selling change is inherently difficult, but the AFL haven’t even tried. They’ve suppressed all dissent and come up with a vision of the future, without nailing down what that vision actually is, let alone finding a way to sell it.

The best they’ve managed are some helpfully selected clips in David Kings lab of congested passages of play, and over promoting the comments of Malcolm Blight, who’s shown more commitment to complaining than he ever did coaching St Kilda.

They’ve supplemented this by talking down Friday night football, and through using their self invested stake holders to prosecute the case for change without ever explaining it beyond some strange hyperbole.

How AMAZING it would be if they players could just show their SKILLS in SPACE…oh it’d just be amazing!

If they threw their promotional muscle behind listening to fans, promoting the teams and the players of the moment, and promoting the finals and the sense of occasion around the build to September, everyone would be better off – instead, they have changed the conversation to this and this topic? And for what reason?

One of the greatest pieces of self promotion for the rule changes was pushing Patrick Dangerfield out to mutter affection for 2005 when Chris Judd “burst out of packs” – that’s 2005, when Andy D said Sydney were boring and everyone was worried about flooding.

For reasons best known to them, Gil McLachlan chose this to float an off broadway thought bubble than “dead games” could be used to trial some of these exciting new rules (a fast goal square! AMAZING!) in the middle of one of the biggest weeks of the season was an awful piece of communication.

It’s been strange that AFLHQ seems so determined to float these thought bubbles (“AFLX in China! No New York! No Hong Kong with Warwick Capper!”) – even if there is need to get into the papers and dominate the sporting narrative, it’d be better to come up with something fully formed. Why float so many ideas? Hoping one sticks?

Are Gil and Hocking so unsure about their own legacies and determined to be remembered for something, anything, that they want to be associated with Zooper Goals and a Hong Kong hit and giggle in November? It’s genuinely strange, weekly solving problems that just don’t exist….

In a week where Richmond went past 100000 members and in a week where Collingwood and Richmond played at the MCG in the biggest home and away match of the season to date, to fill in that week with negative reactions to Gils thought bubble was beyond strange.

Apart from David King, who claimed a match played under rules trials would somehow be the “biggest ratings match of the year” and Ladbrokes who jumped on board to somehow claim that it would result in a betting surge, the public reaction was a mix of apathy and disgust.

If you take that public relations is the art of managing strategic communication to build mutually assured relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders, AFLHQ have lost the basic art of communication.

After all, reputation management is a crucial part of public relations, tying into brand management and coordinating your personal identity. Success does not happen overnight, but failure often does.

Reputation management is about managing your brands reputation and identity every single day, taking care around the message you want to sell.

And all of a sudden, AFLHQ isn’t coping with reputation management at all well…

They didn’t sell AFLX as a necessary part of the football calendar, and that had the full might of AFLHQ self promotion behind it – from a screeching Brad Johnson screaming how much FUN everything was, complete with shots of kids waving to the camera.

They couldn’t sell the changes to AFLW, even though they tried some evasive words and tried to claim they were “spirit of the game adjustments” – imposing a memo that let in the trolls and haters in to denigrate the call without respite.

And now they are trying to impose rule changes on AFLM, and the best they can use to sell the changes are “game adjustments should give fans calmness”. AFLHQ have favored symbolic PR, the use of emotive positive images about SKILLS and SPACE instead of building a substantive relationship between themselves and the public.

Symbolic communications and emotive language are all very well, but there needs to be clear communication when those symbolic vagaries (“the game will be better!) aren’t enough.

AFLHQ still think the medium (ex players with “influence”, swamping social media etc) matters more than the message.

This hasn’t been the case at all. It’s time to actually change the message and messaging, and provide some substance to the message.

The last thing AFLM wants to do is impose a product on its marketplace that has flaws and problems with the rules, because there are countless sports around that have fallen very quickly from grace.

You can make several small mistakes, but very few big ones…

As an example of AFLHQ choosing the medium over the messenger, The Herald Sun trumpeted on the back page “1/3 of footy fans want the game to change!” – no need to rhetorically ask why the other 2/3 were discounted…

Mark Robinson on 360 (an invested stakeholder) said that AFLHQ should just govern and impose the rules they see fit, which is ultimately what’s going to happen, but it’s a little deeper than that, because the audience still needs to go along with the “new” look of AFLM….

And for obvious reasons, every viewer counts – if they fail to communicate the need for changes clearly, they really could be looking at a bleak future….

The hook brings you back

So in the immortal words of Ric Flair, “what’s causing all this” – there’s two PR strands to all this, one we’ll explore a bit more next time, which is the relationship between AFLM and its commercial broadcast partner Channel 7.

Commercial television needs sport more than ever, in its dying days – outside of sport and the occasional special event like a royal wedding, it’s exceptionally rare for a TV programme to draw more than one million viewers nationally.

Value changes and the emergence of media innovations mean that Channel 7 need something exceptional to have people huddled around the TV to specifically watch their product (any product) and Carlton vs the Bulldogs in a 60-40 game isn’t going to cut it. They need more surety going forward that their Friday nights aren’t blanked out.

Sport is thus vital to a commercial TV stations future. Commercial TV is left paying large amounts of dollars for a product they desperately need, mutually assuring the sport its own financial future.

In return, Channel 7 have a vested interest in more goals – Tim Worner said himself that “the 30-50 seconds after a goal is the most valuable real estate on TV”. In a year of being sold poor Friday night games and games with long time periods between goals, Channel 7 have flexed some muscle and demanded changes to change the TV product that is being served up.

When we mentioned above the AFLW memo and the “spirit of the game adjustments”, that was entirely to do with a game between Carlton and Collingwood that produced 3 goals and immense panic that Channel 7 couldn’t crowbar in enough Special K adverts in the second half.

Channel 7 have a vision (we’ll discuss more next time) of producing a sport akin to the NBA – complete with day-to-day narrative, players that are “open”, and individual superstars. They dream of a league where “any media member can walk up to any player and ask a question”, something they look at with envious eyes towards the basketball.

We’ll discuss next time that in Channel 7s mind, this transaction will allow, say, Brian Taylor to become “co-branded” with a player (lets say Jack Higgins) so you watch that player play, then you’ll want to stick around to watch that player do an interview with Brian (or whoever) on your app later, in an example of niche customisation.

In their ideal world, each player would be interviewed post game, and you could watch that, maximizing eye balls. Roaming Brian is an awkwardly crowbarred attempt to test this dream scenario for 7. The game won’t be enough anymore, it will be secondary to the “entertainment”.

Win, lose, your team, not your team, this is about increasing a television audience – making games into individual events. This obviously needs goals and action and excitement – this is about increasing goals and “action” so people don’t switch off. And obviously, ads are a huge part of that, never forget that.

On top of which, the PR metrics that AFLHQ have used to measure the future are indicative of younger fans drifting to supporting individuals and needing stimulus to stay engaged. This part is going to get worse and worse (in terms of noise) with the Marvel deal next year, turning the noise and volume and “fun” up to extraordinary levels.

In addition to the NBA, the AFLHQ have been keen to spin and create their own version of the Big Bash, and were genuinely disappointed at the resistance to AFLX. The idea of kids coming in with purchasing power is incredibly appealing, and when the Marvel deal ramps up, marketing possibilities truly open up.

When Hocking talks about “game adjustments” or “spirit of the game initiatives” he’s coming up with softening language to communicate the need for change isn’t driven by any notion of sport, it’s driven by the need to create something that is bigger, bolder, something that resonates across multi media platforms.

Synergy. Platform driven. All the made up PR phrases we came up with in 2006 that now seem to be worryingly real….

In an era of media complexity, AFLHQ are seeking to simplify their product to be what a commercial television network wants it to be. It’s a strange decision, understandable given the money involved, but strange.

Manipulating a sport around the notion of keeping people huddled around a television set and around the notion of sitting in front of a box waiting for your Brian Taylor fix…

Humble old football just doesn’t cut it by the metrics they use to measure success, and the risk of a bad game needs to be eliminated as much as possible. Risk minimization, not any sporting notions, are at the heart of everything.

Give the networks a failsafe, and everything seems so much better…