Saw a shark today, ate a man and then just swam away…

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There was a long standing PR in joke – formed either from my experiences with a Louisiana pastors call to the faithful sign, or a managers world weary cynicism – that no client should ever find the Lord quietly. Part of working in the industry for any length of time is to find that watching any kind of televised apology, retraction, confession or redemption you will find yourself looking for the joins, the scripted parts, the parts that don’t connect. We’ve discussed before that my old firm had a half joking Wayne Carey template apology on file (“if I’ve offended anyone” etc) and Open Mike on Fox Footy has trumpeted (once literally) that it is part interview show, part confessional. No American school child would have grown up without hearing that confession was good for the soul, but crucially, it’s good for the image. As long as you get it right of course, and that’s the difficult part. It’s not just the PR industry wearily searching for scripted lines, it’s everyone. No one apologizing gets the benefit of the doubt. Even worse for the PR industry, with everyone talking over each other, put your apology/story out on the wrong day, and it gets swallowed up in the cycle. Get it wrong and it can be even worse. God help the person who has to check the hashtags the second someones tell all interview airs…

Australia is a particularly tough market to sell the “I’m changed/cured/found the Lord/this is my truth” market. For context, check the reaction to infamous James Hird/Tracey Holmes interview, an interview that is still darkly mentioned in PR circles. This week, two very different redemption tales were told, both about the recovery from addiction – one by Chris Yarran, and one by Rod Butterrs. Yarran, the former Carlton and Richmond player, had his story filmed like a carefully tighted sales pitch for his particular church, with cue cards, lighting, mood music and unnatural verbiage. The curious thing about Yarrans confession/conversion video making the rounds was the original video draft was uploaded to YouTube in May, somehow becoming a scoop when it had been hiding in plain sight all along. It was bizarre to see those who proclaim care and concern for Yarran and journalists on the cutting edge failed to find this clip for three months. Religion is a difficult sell in Australia – the approbation and scuttlebutt Gary Ablett Jr faces about “the God Squad” at the Gold Coast shows that. It causes significant discomfort at a PR level, because of the cynicism it invokes, as stated above.

Yarrans clip wasn’t the classic media trail – it didn’t feel exploitatitve in the traditional sense of, say, a Footy Show interview that goes off the rails (nothing was more uncomfortable than the Daniel Kerr interview on said show, in which a grinning dismissive Kerr failed to play the PR game with Garry Lyon). Yarran made the clip in consort with his church, and there it lay, relatively unpublicised until an edited version went up recently. In that sense the clip is fascinating to see – the presentation is uncomfortable, but the lack of publicity for it? That’s the interesting part to me – a redemption clip buried in the depths of Youtube? And a religious redemption clip? That’s not a judgement of the church or an analysis of faith, just pure basic PR. Yarran has a story to tell, clearly, and it was interesting to see the tale told in this fashion, rather than the Open Mike style channels. Suffice to say, how you feel about the clip is up to you, but it felt defiantly out of kilter with how things “are done” in 2017. Maybe that’s a real positive…

Butterrs, the former St Kilda president, fared much less well in the court of public opinion, being interviewed by this blogs bete noire Damien Barrett and blundering through a painful set of recollections about bungled Saints moments (sidebar: no side in the world is tied to the past like St Kilda, I digress). Butterss almost jovially and casually dismissed his foibles and failures, particularly sacking Malcolm Blight and the break down of his relationship with Grant Thomas. The response was a chest thumping macho response from Danny Frawley, and springing the interview on a distressed and surprised Nick Riewoldt (the clip aired on The Footy Show, where Riewoldt was a panelist) enabled them to get an instant quote from a current player like it was a new story.

Tonally, the piece was off and out of kilter, particularly springing it on a retiring player like the show did with Riewoldt. The Footy Show “big interviews” have a habit of digging up old scandals with pretty new packaging. There’s not a St Kilda fan of the era who doesn’t lament the failures of the Butterrs era. They are well known. To have a full confession/interview hinting at impairment and poor judgement isn’t anything revelatory. It puts a bow on the era, but to be honest, the Butterrs era was properly analysed round about the time Malcolm Blight couldn’t give a rats toss bag on Channel 10.

The Yarran clip felt more positive in intent if you set aside religious misgivings, the Butterrs confession felt like a rake over old coals. The big PR loser again was St Kilda, who have their past poked and prodded like it’s failings are perpetually entertaining, and like this is a new story that affects the day to day running of 2017 St Kilda. On a personal level, Butterrs has provided context to his failings as a president before. To do it again? It felt horribly out of place…none of this by the way is an assessment of Butterrs as a person in 2017, and that where things get tricky. Part of your redemption story is to talk about yourself at your worst, seemingly forever. And that’s where things get difficult with the PR interview. The interview is terrible, but you judge the person not just on their interview, but on their actions from 12, 15 years ago. How do you manage that? Someone stating they are at their best (now) speaks openly about when they were at their worst, so you judge them at their worst. It’s a lot to digest…

It’s nigh on impossible to judge the sincerity of a personal redemption tale – the use of religion in the Yarran case instantly produces cynicism, particularly as stated above when religion is as cliched a PR staple as apologizing in front of the wife and kids, but that can be unfair, deeply unfair to those of genuine faith and belief. Both men seem genuinely at peace and in the classic “better place”. Maybe that’s enough for now. Cynicism is still my go to place, but that’s industry influenced. Too often though, media treats these interviews as full stops. The end of the journey before moving on to something else. So does my own industry, putting the interview to air and then moving on. On a personal level, the revelatory interview can be cathartic, a releasing of burden. On a PR level, it’s so tightly wound and pre planned, every step of the way, that we know that you know it’s totally planned. It leaves everything up to viewer and the world of “instant reactions” to decide how it went. And believe me, that’s pretty impossible to truly predict, and that scares people in PR more than you know…

The burdens of being upright

It’s been a horrible year for the AFL football media – challenged, questioned, defensive, held to account like never before. Although it hasn’t brought the much needed change it promised to at times (THAT Footy Show is back, with Sam Newman making jokes about Bec Maddern giving him mouth to mouth etc) there’s been enough discomfort from viewers and enough public debate to cause some media industry self reflection. With so many voices (accredited or otherwise) shouting over each other to be noticed, with Monday villains excoriated and ridiculed and players like Mark LeCras retired on the spot in the race for a headline, it’s pretty unsurpising that behind the scenes things have been bubbling along, with discussion and discourse about the role of media taking up time at clubs, and at the AFL.

It took Brad Hardie to bring the issue to a head – Hardie posited that Ross Lyon (coach of Fremantle) had rung Collingwood to find out if he could get a job if Collingwood moved Nathan Buckley on at the end of the season. As with all these things, that put Lyon, Buckley and erstwhile Collingwood president Eddie McGuire under immense pressure. Deny? Well, there’s no smoke without fire! Say nothing? Well, what are they trying to hide! It was the classic media flier, part lie, part speculation, part scuttlebutt. It happens all the time these days, even from those who still cling to notions of journalism. Between coach speculation, fake trades, player discontent, body language experts and David Kings world of fuzzy stats and logic, journalism is now as much about taking punts and reporting opinions as it is combining stories. By that logic, Hardie taking a punt, and reporting something he’d heard didn’t seem out of place in 2017 – after all, journalism and media have shown the ability to bounce back hard from awful articles and mistakes. This, even if dismissed, should have been no different.

Hardies story ended up being not only discounted, but dismissed as an outright lie. A Nathan Buckley thought bubble about taking accreditation away from media members quickly escalated to almost AFL endorsed policy, via Gil McLachlan, who speaking with Neil Mitchell sent panic through the industry by saying taking accreditation away from media was a “good idea”. Naturally this brought out arguments from the likes of Ralph and Barrett that didn’t navel gaze at all – what about clubs lying? What about the AFL lying? Clubs of course do lie, but there needs to be at least some consideration from the media as why they do. Not to have sympathy for the media, but there is consideration for journalists doing diligence on a story who run into that clubs version of Neil Balme who is sent out to deflect, deny and distract. It has become a two way street of mis-trust. To be honest also, in the face of that, clubs would be conscious that open door access (this is the point where someone would scream something about the NBA open door policy here if this was in the Herald Sun) invites pure mis-representation. If the media was honest, years of failing to maturely react to anyone in football being honest on an issue has created the mis-trust, and here we find ourselves.

Holding media to accountabilty though on face value seems a major step forward – after all, the casual “oh well, I’ll write something else then” disdain for facts, logic and reason does need to have something for the AFL participants to fight back with. After all, Nathan Buckley sat next to Mark Robinson when he casually and dismissively shrugged “ah well, I took a educated guess” on the number of Collingwood players who had failed a drugs test. Not to mention after another Buckley attack on the media (this time on Footy Classified) Jon “Uncomfortable” Ralph admitted in an article “sometimes the media makes things up for clicks”. By that point, even Gerard Whateley was getting defensive about the medias role. When neither Ralphs quote, nor Robinsons revelation stir up any major discussion (media critiquing media still isn’t the done thing, despite that being the original premise of AFL 360) you can imagine the frustation in AFL circles. A mechanism to redress the rise of click bait journalism sounds like a massive positive on face value.

To be honest though, taking accreditation away is a bad idea, for one simple reason – it achieves nothing. It’s an exclusionary act that holds a journalist accountable by taking away their ability to get access or go to games, like a public shaming, but it does nothing to stop, say, Brad Hardie, having a job on the radio. Hardie is able to still go into his radio booth, break entirely the same story, have the same ripples caused, and go about his day. It’s a slap on the wrist, nothing more. It doesn’t address the problems caused by mutual mis-trust because it gives the media something to kick against. It’s not conciliatory or well thought out. It’s punitive, reather than than thoughtful or creative. If Hardie did make up a story (or got bad information) attacking the root causes that allow him to do so would be far more important, rather than the isolationist approach. McLachlans solution isn’t the right way forward. Mending bridges between clubs and media is going to take far more time and thinking than pushing people to the margins to bring “integrity” back to an industry now firmly grounded in the “you clicked it!” mentality.

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