I believe in so much more than just being nice and saying alright…

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A few years ago, the big thing in PR (as espoused in a particularly contentious tweet from Stephanie McMahon of the WWE) was to get involved in philanthropy – that brands with social conscience were winning the battle and the PR war. The battle was lost sometime around the time brands became panicked about social media, and a backlash began. philanthropy? Charity? Even the most laudable efforts in charity now receive a cynical backlash, so now the debate is different, with some companies thinking why bother? It’s not will we get involved in a charitable effort…but should we? All brands face a difficult decision. There are times to get involved in social messages and campaigns, but how far do you go? Brands are terrified – take Big W, now allegedly terrified to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree! Won’t someone think of the children! Of course, if you believe that, you believe anything, but that’s another blog for another day…

There is a growing notion among many that sporting institutions should stick to sports, not politics, not social issues. That a governing body should stick to issues such as dealing with Viagogo and clash jumpers and how much the Sydney Swans use their hose before they delve into social issues. Clubs too get that from time to time, players even, the “why don’t you get a kick first!” methodology so espoused by Robert Walls especially. The notion of anyone from the AFL taking a social stand seems to be on the nose for these people, although they are quite fine with ANZAC Day. Not just announce to the world that you would prefer your club or sporting organisation should stick to sports, but rail against political correctness for bonus points. It’s a contradiction of logic to suggest “stick to sports and be silent on issues!” (thanks Mick McGuane) isn’t in itself a political statement, but I digress….

You can understand that this has caused issues – there is footage of Collingwood players on the bus before the 2010 Grand Final being implicitly told not to say anything controversial and be “as bland as possible”. The cycle is there, why get caught up in it? Why give the opposition “bulletin board material” – brands and entities deal with this as well. Small target strategies are everywhere – and one of the smallest target strategies is letting an individual be your brand. Find that remarkable person in your industry doing 10 hours of charity work a weekend, and put them out front. It’s not our company taking a social stand, it’s this person! But we’ll put our logo in the story, just so you know they are ours…

The statements released by Carlton (and latterly to much less criticism Hawthorn) that espoused a Ringo Starr esque “peace and love” vibe while sitting on the fence and deciding not to campaign for same-sex marriage. Carlton sent Darcy Vescio down to the AFL Yes Sign launch/event, and have Michael Jamison representing the Yes campaign for personal reasons. Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson also attended. People have tried to explain that obviously these are individual views, and to expect an institution to entirely share these views and promote them uniformly is wrong. Stick to sports!

The problem is, from a PR point of view, you can bet your bottom dollar both clubs will draw the requisite publicity from the philanthropic or socially conscious efforts of individuals when the time comes. The stick to sports brigade within each club (and Carlton Pride spoke evocatively about the strong No support at Carlton) will at times draw PR and social praise for other actions. Did you know Carlton has a women’s team! Those people will be at their game, basking in the reflective. It’s not so simplistic to separate club and individual…

It’s strange to think that any club could stick to sports – not in the AFL. Most of the clubs come from the VFL, representing suburbs and quite disparate socio-economic stories and backgrounds. Stick to sports? Carlton? A proudly big L Liberal club at the top end of town? Collingwood? Part of the reason Collingwood are hated to this day comes from a suspicion of their working class roots and suburb, with smears and rumours spread about their supporters and methods from richer suburbs to explain why they were wining flags. Essendon? “Had to be an exceptional Catholic to play for Essendon in the 50s” – that’s from Kevin Sheedys book. The entire roots of the sport are ground in social classes, in differing political views, in the social networking of club boards and presidents. Stick to sports? At what mythical point in sports history was there not a PR battle over what a clubs identity was that didn’t draw into some form of political argument?

As for the AFL, well, they put up a sign outside AFL house that turned their logo into a YES logo, and got rewarded with all the Murdochian tabloid fury 20 angry letter writers can muster and several ex footballers demanding they stick to sport (more on that in a moment). They even got a hoax threat into the bargain. Again, stick to sports McLachlan! What about ticket prices! On a basic PR level, there really isn’t any other option than for the AFL to publically side with the Yes campaign. Social inclusivity is a no brainer for sports – a sports league that campaigns on a no vote would be ridiculed out-of-town. Now, from a PR point of view, the AFL still squirm and evade certain social responsibilities (we’re still waiting on that Lumumba statement, and the sponsorship of Etihad is questionable) but which brand logically would reject PR approved notions of inclusivity?

Changing a logo for (ultimately) a day was symbolic, but treated by the stick to sports brigade as some sort of apocalyptic gesture. A simple PR gesture of support became “all about fury” – the Herald Sun is a master of these false equivalency plays, telling you what to think in the lead or the headline then sneaking in a “have your say” link under the article. The chance to milk “political correctness gone mad innit!” is a gift to them. To link back a bit, this is their choice of brand. It’s journalism of a limited value – but it is an effective message. On a dime, the Herald Sun could easily and shamelessly pivot to a different side of an argument. Naturally, most of the comments about the AFL switch of logo didn’t progress beyond “Stick to sports!”. But should they? They are the most influential body in Melbourne to be blunt – Melbourne networking opportunities are best served by joining a football club board. By extension, to Melbourne, identifying with a particular football club is it’s own form of political decision, deciding which doors are opened to you – there’s never been stick to sports. Ever….

When you think of the logical extension of the AFL sticking to sports – there would be no ANZAC Day, no Dream Time at the G, no women’s league. Football clubs wouldn’t represent much at all, particularly the Victorian ones, born from suburbs, backgrounds and economic circumstances that give them colour and history. For people to decide which social issues are acceptable parts of their community for the AFL to tell about, and which ones aren’t is a particularly bothersome ideal – the stick to sports brigade will be the ones who retweet different community activities from their own players and take pride in them.

Clubs who don’t make a stand on marriage equality will get themselves into the paper that is being so openly hostile to the Yes campaign on different social activities and expect praise and approving comments. There is no stick to sports anymore. There’s only stick to saying things we approve of. That’s an entirely diffferent PR dilemma of course and one we can’t really expect Tony Shaw to solve…

Speaking of which…

I saw the sign, and it opened up my mind…

Writing in the Chicago Tribune about the Jemele Hill issue on ESPN, Shannon Ryan asked a pertinent question about the media:  in journalism, whose truth are we telling? It’s fair to say the Murdochian era of news is emotive, to be kind. It’s about stirring emotions, it’s about heroes, villains, real Straayans battling those damned politicians and their bloody council red tape. Modern day journalism isn’t a search for truth, as it is for clicks. Narrative media is an established fact – so once the AFL put their sign up, it didn’t take long for the Herald Sun to begin the search for the furious minority. Fury isn’t what it used to be – a few tweets is enough to stick the story, but of course, the stick to sports narrative is always inflammatory enough to find willing participants in the game. And boy, did the Herald Sun not have to search too far…

One of this blogs fascinations is the way that former footballers in Melbourne immediately forget the way they played, the way they are, removing entire past histories with a single stroke. Barry Hall and Leigh Matthews get to espouse what they don’t like in the game, where as a more questioning eye might suggest punching people in the jaw when they aren’t looking is more displeasing than a tribal war dance. It’s why David King and Mark McClure tell players to pull their heads in seconds after 360 plays footage of them preening to the crowd. Of course, at its darker moments, this ceases to be amusing – we’ve discussed before Wayne Carey being asked to give his opinion on sledging and fronting White Ribbon night. Encircled and protected by a media willing to forgive and forget in return for a few sparkling anecdotes about the 90s, no one ever asks questions of former footballers. They can generally opine on anything they please. And boy do they hate signs…

So it was that following on from the horrendous Sam Newman/Mark Latham face off about which privileged white man best represented the little Aussie battler, the Herald Sun dug up Tony Shaw to talk about how the AFL should stick to sports. Most notably, Shaw managed to go into full on mini Bolt mode, sneaking in a bit of damn those pesky yes voters and their vilification, it’s just not on! Keep in mind…this was Tony Shaw saying this. A man who got a game in part because of his sledging, and who once said “I would racially vilify someone every week in the day if I thought it would help”. These comments were printed unchallenged, the speaker of them unquestioned. It’s an infuriatingly modern trend that allows any footballer to be called upon as the font of wisdom. No one was willing to point and go, um, Tony Shaw? Calling for respectful verbiage? Talking about vilification? No? Just me then?

Even worse, skipping over a parade of McGuanes, Thomas’s, the fountain of emotional intelligence that is Mick Malthouse, and even (sigh) Erin Molan who all tripped over themselves to claim that the big bad AFL was bullying people into submission, the Herald Sun even somehow dug up John Elliott to give his opinion. And that opinion of course was, stick to sports. The profound depression felt anytime Elliott rises up to speak on any subject continues to this day – a cursory google search will bring up more depressing material than you can imagine (the one about Aboriginal workers wandering off the job is up there). Yet there he was, bold as brass, puffing out his chest like it was the 80s.

Of course, the logical extension of this? Yes, Malthouse, Molan, McGuane etc should definitely stick to sports – after all that’s the logical extension of thought isn’t it? If Gil Mclachlan is only qualified to run the AFL and do bad Mark Robinson impressions because he isn’t qualified to speak on marriage equality, then hosing a low rating show about the NRL or playing in the 1990 Premiership or not knowing how to manage ruckmen or not being able to manage a salary cap should qualify you only to talk about sports and not much else. That’s not a courtesy that they extend to their inner circle. So of course, when Tony Shaw lets us know who should wear a clash jumper in the Grand Final, we’d love to know…is it Adelaide???

 

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