Can’t tell me there’s no point in trying, I’m at one, and I’ve been quiet for too long…

Sport-AGE

Long ago, one of my public relations courses required me to study rhetorical theory – as a base level, rhetorical theory is about the best ideas win the contest, that you win a public relations argument through discourse. The cynic in me was always interested in the negative relationship between organisation and individual, and how the narrative was formed by powerful entities. What chance an individual had against an onslaught of negative narrative, how one persons story in the media or collective thought bubble could change an opinion for the worse.

Against all judgement, I always read those “why everyone hates (X) articles to see…why am I supposed to hate this person again? And rhetoric theory isn’t just about convincing yourself that something is just so – it’s about motivating, persuading someone else that things are factual, even when they aren’t. The more access in channels you have to use rhetoric, the more opportunity you theoretically have to bury someone. Drop the right words, drop the right phrases, and no one will even notice you’ve done it…it’s a perfectly legitimate but ultimately destructive use of negative PR. Win the “wrangle in the market place”, and you win the war…

In Melbourne, it was always wise to avoid falling foul of the entities that always won the wrangle: Collingwood and the AFL. The former is as interconnected in the media as anyone, Eddie McGuire relying on old style public relationships to ensure he is able to avoid genuine scrutiny. Few play the game, enjoy the tussle more than McGuire, an old school bruiser who doesn’t mind kneecapping those who cross him. Collingwood for many years were the masters of PR – as we mentioned before, Collingwood have been able to take a random lyric in their club song and turn side by side into a PR dream, an all encapsulating way to suppress dissent, to encircle those inside the tent to the expense of those isolated to the side. Dissent is disloyalty. McGuire would genuinely be bewildered why these past players are against him. Why? I did this for them, I did that…how truly ungreatful! What happened to side by side…

Then there is AFL, less a sporting body than a PR mini factory, able to bludgeon anything they like into the public consciousness. While the AFL presents a less ruthless air than the glory days of Andrew Demetriou chewing up his enemies, make no mistake, this is still a highly ruthless body, capable of exiling those it hates with the stroke of a pen (Jason Akermanis for instance). The AFL, of all sporting bodies, is the most conscious of its public image, push polling, debating, reframing and push polling again almost every day until it is satisfied it’s message is getting through…

Both Collingwood and the AFL have had to face some pretty explosive allegations in recent time – Heritier Lumumba has sparked a difficult conversation that isn’t just about race, but the very nature of the sport. There are deep questions about the toxic nature of sporting clubs, that ridicule and banter are seen as the same, the culture that fosters the “chimp” nickname on someone insecure and trying to fit in, then is bewildered why that same person questions that down the line. That those who challenge the system find themselves very quickly on the outer. That loyalty is supposedly unquestioned even to those players on the very knife edge of being delisted or traded.

Lumumba played for Collingwood, but he asked questions of the entire system, turning his experiences at Collingwood into questions about why anything was the way it was in the football world – why the Footy Show made the jokes they did, why people talked the way the did in football clubs, why insularity means racism is so casual, misogyny so rampant. It opened others to talk about their experiences – most poignantly, Andrew Krakouer speaking of being made to play in a game post Adam Goodes as to not do so would be disloyal. Side by side after all. Unless you are Chris Mayne or another of those on footballers career ending edge, but that’s for another time…

That said, to see these erstwhile, ruthless bodies so allegedy and apparently versed in the arts (light and dark) of public relations so completely mis-read the play on the Heritier Lumumba story has been startling, infuriating and enlightening at the same time. To wit: in the light of the airing of Fair Game (a documentary we’ve discussed at length) and the allegations and tales of Heritier Lumumba, the Collingwood PR strategy has been one of head in the sand silence, non responsiveness, and a troubling hint of derision. More than troubling. Nathan Buckley (at his press conference around his re-appointment) and Eddie McGuire (in an interview in the Sunday Herald Sun) both made pointed references to Lumumba’s “health” and “wellbeing”, McGuire even going so far as to say “when everyone else abandons Lumumba, he’s welcome back at Collingwood” – ie, once that crazy Heritier and his racial theories goes back to being loveable Harry, and starts quoting Kanye West lyrics again like it’s 2009, everything will be fine…

There’s also those who, particularly in September, hope Lumumba will “stick to sports”, the emptiest of arguments. Why challenge, why ask difficult questions? Not NOW! Not September! A sporting organisation, hell any organisation, no longer has the luxury of timing. They don’t set the agendas as they once might have, which is part of the problem. People who talk about “keyboard warriors” also don’t mention that social media keeps things alive, asks difficult questions. “Stick to sports!” – it’s not something that’s possible. Dazzling people with finals? Not always an option – what sticks and what fades from view, the things that dog your organisation, you don’t control that narrative as much anymore…you can try to talk about crazy Harry and his welfare all you want, but it’s not working…even when you progress from the club talking about it to the sport talking about it…

The strand of “crazy H” continued with a reckless quote from Gil Mclachlan, who palmed the issue off to Tanya Hosch (The AFL general manager of inclusion and social policy), decided he wasn’t going to meet Heritier personally, defensively spoke generally and broadly without specifics on the AFL leading role in ending racism (the AFL are always as a body claiming responsibility for the actions of individuals after all). Most notably, McLachlan continued the narrative of “Crazy H” by saying “this issue is really about where he’s at and his state of mind and his welfare”. Again, it’s an insidious narrative: just get better Heritier, we want to welcome you back in the fold. Only when you are well of course, never mind the issues you’ve raised. Just get better. We’re genuinely concerned, we really are. If you could just stop raising those nasty elements about race and the boys club of football, we’d really appreciate it. We might even give you a nice title such as multi cultural ambassador…just get better….rest up, get better…

This is not just a ridiculous PR strategy that fails to tackle, listen or engage in Lumumba’s claims and listen to his story, a PR strategy that attempts to patronise, condescend and besmirch the reputation of the individual. And simply, it’s not working. It’s a story that isn’t going away, and the strategy of isolating Lumumba and hoping to simply prey on the hope people think he’s a “bit of a flog”, that if we subtly mention the time he wanted to meet Barack Obama or that he used to send out funny tweets, people will ignore the issue, chatter behind their hands about his mental health or link to when he was upset Muhammad Ali died.

Rhetoric theory at its finest, that’s what they attempted. And it’s failed miserably. The story is snowballing down the hill, every day another player speaks up or speaks out. The strategy of evasion has failed. The strategy of “Crazy H” has failed, even from the most powerful PR organisations in the land. The story isn’t dead, it’s kept alive. And the chagrin, the palpable frustration of those who can’t kill dissent is growing. Leon Davis, Andrew Krakouer, Chris Egan, they’ve all shared their experiences. Lumumba even got to explain the process of European decolonization to Doug Hawkins in one of TVs more surreal conversations (in fairness to Doug, he was more engaged and interested in the discussion than your average ex 90s footballer). Knowing PR as I do, once the AFL and Collingwood can’t kill a story, they turn vicious. This is going to get ugly, before it gets better. The next stage of rhetoric theory once persuasion fails i absolute aggression and leaks against the individual. The system doesn’t like being challenged…

Incidentally, this is a side bar – Mick Malthouse. Mick Malthouse has been evasive and slippery throughout this process. Even Lumumba eulogized Malthouse in his documentary, painting the wistful old man packed with emotional intelligence to his younger contemporary who made insensitive jokes. Malthouse, a PR master of evasive, coded language, even opined “a lot went on after I left”. It’s all that nasty Nathan Buckleys fault…but who was the coach when the chimp nickname fostered? Malthouse has emerged unchallenged, when he was in charge of a system that openly didn’t care what went on, who got hurt and what was said, as long as the team kept on winning. It under his auspices that the nickname flourished. That he has been able to slip through the net without questions being asked shows maybe it’s Malthouse that’s winning the PR game after all…

The needle returns to the start of the song

We talked in the last co-posted blog post about the AFL failing to promote the women’s game. The hidden part of that post was of course that the womens game was part of the pre finals bye, slotted in with little fanfare to at least provide some football to the masses (theoretically, since James Brayshaws commentary return was seen as more worthy of mention). The pre finals bye between Round 23 and the first week of the finals was taken up in cudgels by the media as the single most important topic of the week. It sparked debate, infuriated, passionate debate about…well nothing really. It was a stale, time filling debate entirely debated by people who in 2015 openly pondered with similar solemnity that in the last round of the season teams rested players and how good would it be to have a finals bye?

The worst thing about the finals bye (apart from the conversation about the finals bye) was that it caused the media to spin-off in tangents and random nonsense even more than usual, particularly once Dustin Martin and his “circus” came to a Damien Barrett exiling rest on THAT Footy Show. Luke Darcy and his chattering classes on Talking Footy even spent time talking and idling about the supergoal and how it might help the return of the torp, hoping to spark the nation into debate about the merits of a player kicking the ball a long way. The Sunday Footy Show, the vanguard of idle blokiness (now with added Kane Cornes, you lucky people) winced and complained about a football free weekend, picked on Tony Jones teeth (the humour is: they are really white! Do you get it!) and then filled in most of the show with a montage. And of course, everyone had an opinion on the pre finals bye, that most important of topics…did you know it disadvantages the top four! We have the evidence of, er, 1 year…

This is the PR silly season: if you are vaguely involved in PR, you’ll get invites to attend lunches, you get invites to many things, people send you press releases about Ben Dixon going down a building or James Brayshaw bios or, say, a personal appearance from Nick Maxwell at a shoe store. It’s one of the emptiest of seasons in PR, football at its most talkative, past players at their most cash grabbing. If you want to hear a panel discuss the 1985 Grand Final, this is the time. The amount of paper generated in September about anything but the women’s game is significant – this is the boys month. They’ve got nothing to say, and they’ll more than ever clamour to have you pay to hear it…especially the one about Tony Jones teeth. They are really, really white…

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