The hardest part of working in PR or any form of media is managing the apology – we get it, cynicism rules, contrition is dismissed, and as soon as the cameras and lights are off, we are in rooms debriefing on the best way to manage how the apology went. PR machines are everywhere. I’ve written before we have in our office computer an only half-joking “Wayne Carey” template apology proclaiming somewhere in the middle “if I have offended anyone…” – the most frustrating part of managing a PR apology is dealing with bad timing. I’ve often said to people, you can run into terrible bad luck with timing when your job is to manage someones reputation. Why is one persons drink driving conviction worse than anyone elses? Why is one tweet picked up and run with but another slips by? Why did Dermot Breretons “women’s footballers are grooming” question cause no ripples or why did it take a full week for the Caroline Wilson/Triple M skit to truly go mainstream? Why did Justine Sacco have her life ruined as opposed to the millions of offensive tweets that slip by? Is it who is your friends and who is your enemies that counts? Your life can change on the wrong retweet. The infuriating line in a muddled, crowded social media world as to what gains traction – positive or negative – is making PR harder to handle. What’s right? What’s wrong?
How do you handle the crisis when it does go wrong? As a person, as an institution…
On Monday night, Mark Robinson made a public apology for the Alex Fasolo tweet – Mark Robinsons contrition or otherwise isn’t the point of this blog post. Judging contrition is a false economy – deeds and time still don’t gain people total forgiveness if you don’t like the person to begin with. While this isn’t a pile on, Robinson would be aware of the irony that in 2016 he said this (in reference to Garry Lyon)…
“If you want to hang it on people, make sure your own backyard is pretty solid. In this case it’s not,” he said.
If you read this blog, you’ll know it’s a fair sentiment, given it was said against the wall of noise and blokey bloke hypocritical fury that is Triple M (and there was a fair sense of axes being ground in the immediate fall out of his tweet, not to mention Brayshaw, Taylor et al having a cheek to take any moral high ground, but I digress) – but it covers all spectrums of the media circus. Robinson, as Josh Pinn said in his excellent blog, was a promoter that the then Harry O’Brien should “harden up” when he had mental health issues, that asked with no kid gloves of Mark Thompson about James Hird “killing himself”, and on tonight’s 360 pondered to Bec Daniher what she felt about watching her father Neale die. There was also his rumination that the kiss between Erin Phillips and Tracy Gahan was “sensual” – one of the more uncomfortable columns of 2017. He has form for asking indelicate, indiscreet questions. If there was a guess, there’s a fair chance he will again. While not qualified to judge Robinsons contrition, it’s fair from media monitoring and past form to assess there will be a clumsy moment (hell, there was one on tonights 360) and what happens from there is anyones guess. And just to show the full circle of media and grudges, Robinson told 5AA in Adelaide that karma would get those in the media who had criticised him. So…there’s that…
From a purely media watching point of view, 360 will have to recover some lost credibility in the short-term. 360 has, as discussed in the last blog post, been happy to post its small l “liberal” (American term) social conscience for all to see. They not only had Eddie McGuire on following the King Kong furore, they brought on Heritier Lumumba from McGuire’s own Collingwood to continue the grilling and trial (McGuires comments were naturally disgusting, and the kind of “boofy” joke thats risible, but when you have someone on for that kind of grilling for a media related “gaffe”, well, something about backyards being clean?). Robinson and Gerard Whateley pondered in some condemnatory depth about Jake Carlisle merely “liking” a tweet about Marc Murphy being sledged and have done segments on poor tweets and social media gaffes. Robinson being on the “360” agenda should have been a chance to do as they spoke, live as they proclaimed. Not in contrition, but in set up and questioning, in showing that they were sticking to a set moral code. This wouldn’t have involved piling on for a suspension, but just asking difficult questions. And they missed the chance.
It wouldn’t have been overtly difficult for Whateley to have come with a quick, scripted “difficult” question. 360 after all have been strongly moral on certain issues, have a large and significant platform to peddle their criticisms of players, that has this platform to decide what’s, quote, “real or over-reaction”? Purely from a PR point of view, it was a fairly interesting editorial decision to simply “get on with the game” after a short apology and proclamations of writing a letter? When discussed above, how things come down to timing? In some ways, it worked OK that the tweet fell on a Thursday, when 360 wasn’t on, and then the show didn’t resume until Monday? In not addressing the issue with the same vim and vigour as it has other errors and mistakes from other people, the show lot a lot of it’s self imposed moral standards. It’s not going to be hard for the next player put on the “360 Agenda ™” to feel a significant hyprocisy that the show didn’t practice as it preached.
After all, the single biggest question remains unanswered – if the “wrong choice of words” was Robinsons immediate apology for the tweet, what in god’s name was the right choice of words meant to be?
So as 360 becomes another oddly compromised TV show in a pack of them, the next question becomes – where does it leave players and media? It’s long been a secret concern in media that one day players will effectively realise they don’t need “old media”, don’t need to cultivate relationships with journalists and newspapers, don’t need to trot up to radio stations or TV appearances – that full control of social media and their message is already happening. Within Australia, there’s still just enough of a relationship with players and media (particularly as it creates post playing career jobs to build relationships in media if you are a current player), but it’s fraught right now. There’s no question that players have always had at least some suspicion of media, but until relatively recently the concerns were entirely over harsh criticisms of their playing. The recent shift to morality judgements on players and the narrative scrutiny on their lifestyles has been something else. Now, media still has a role to play in exposing misbehaviour and reporting on it, but there would be little doubt that as a player, it must be infuriating to see a media staffed with judgemental ex players who’ve forgotten their own “pasts” and journalists given free passes for their excesses and mistakes.
Patrick Dangerfield wrote something significantly interesting in a front page article in the Herald Sun about anxiety and player pressure. It did veer slightly towards the oft troubling equation that form = happiness (mentioned before that I have worked with one star player who always thought depression could be cured with a solid knock in the middle and a few boundaries). That always veers towards the dreaded “get a kick” mentality which always seems a little shallow. However, the interesting part was Dangerfield discussing in depth the fact that players often get to 100+ games, leave the game and feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. That part is imminently interesting, and of course it was lost on some Herald Sun commentators who didn’t get beyond the usual Tezza and Shezza “50/50” column thinking of “I wouldn’t be depressed with his money! What a joke!”. In opening up the conversation, Dangerfield did a good service. Players are now more likely to talk and be open about their stresses. It will be interesting from a PR point of view to monitor just how that plays out in the media, whether it will be “good to talk” or if someone else slips up and falls into the old “he didn’t look very depressed at 3am Johnno!” gaffe that’s so prevalent when the microphones are turned off.
Not to rake over old infuriating ground, but keep in mind that this interview was said in the presence of Wayne Carey (WAYNE CAREY!!!) so let’s put the moral high ground of Talking Footy to one side. Dangerfield appeared on the show, and said this about Mark Robinsons tweet.
“I was really disappointed in that tweet, especially given Mark really has been the judge, jury and executioner of footballers that make mistakes,” Dangerfield said.
“That’s then played out throughout all media circles, obviously writes for the paper (the Herald Sun), he’s on 360 five nights a week, and then they’re really ripped over the hot coals.
You can debate the whys and wherefores of players vs media forever – after all, there is still an adulation to playing football that gives a lot of social protection and opens many doors. As Stugotz pointed out recently on Mike & Mike, LeBron James decided the media were all against him, just at the exact point everyone started praising him. Adulation from the media is still there – there would be many more praiseworthy articles about Dangerfield than negative ones. The point is once you get too far into media morality plays (and that’s “what you want”, commentators as characters and fierce monitoring of behaviour, according to Channel 7 higher ups), the more you leave yourself open to hyprocisy. In accepting the role of setting “the 360 agenda” you can’t ignore your own failings. Tying in to all of this, it emphasises again that there is room for a TV show that deals with just “football” and takes away a lot of these judge and jury panels and shows. If there is a player appetite for it as well, all the better. Nuance is sometimes lost at the moment, as everything ties in to the bigger picture. Gaining an understanding of players, and dropping down a gear from the moral high ground, might make for better media.
- The Monday Language
The upshot of this understanding of players and what they go through is only fleeting however, in a media sense – and I know this because Monday proved it. There’s still narrative copy and construct to be had – there’s still an audience that devours the Monday hero and villain narrative. To be clear, there has never been a point in sporting media that there hasn’t been a construct around heroes and villains, a coach under pressure, a player struggling for form. Social media turns up the volume of this abuse, but turning players into venting points for spleen and angst is as old as time (there has been a “judge and jury” media doyen running coverage since papers were printed) – I know my hand is high in the air, as I reflect on my own fandom, as to how I abuse players. In the midst of understanding of anxiety players feel, it’s worth reflecting that by Monday, even as Dangerfield’s words were spinning through social media and being debated, that the media had moved their narrative construct to the weekends event, and the language of football (particularly on a Monday) was out in force.
Again, not to pile on, but Mark Robinsons “The Tackle” column is a celebration of the weekends winners and losers, and this week contained digs at Mark LeCras (a re-warmed joke from SEN about how LeCras should be on the banned list of things that can’t fly out of Perth Airport) and a dig at Todd Goldstein. Garry Lyon went even further stating that West Coast were “Mummys Boys” after their loss to the Gold Coast and isolating Jack Darling for his performance. That’s on top of the oft mentioned “fun” on Bounce that involved Brad Hill being called out for his dribble kick miss and Heath Shaw being mocked on the “Don’t Come Monday” segment. And this is also to omit social media, talkback radio, the 50/50 columns…
If there is going to be any kind of change and genuine adapation to the sensitivities of players mental health (and there are still enough sceptics out there to suggest this is going to be a long haul) the way football is covered would have to change. The language around it would have to change. Become more team based in analysis instead of winners and losers. Take away the narrative and go back to results, teams failing, not hounding players out of the game like Damian Barrett has with Rockliff, Riewoldt and more. Not printing speculative comments on who’s going to be delisted in mid season reviews.
Isolating players as “Mummys Boys” and “flogs” and “snapperheads” is unquestionably against all that we’ve just learned. For all the supportive clucking and hissing around Alex Fasolo, who deserves genuine support right now, it’s still a media pile on when the time is right on individuals. Without that kind of change, it’s still going to be the brutal industry it is, pausing only briefly to state “it’s good to talk” as a platitude and passing comment between hot takes on player behaviour and funny skits…