Every so often in public relations, a buzz word will go round the industry.
After a while, and this may be true in many other industries, that buzz word ultimately becomes meaningless.
Cheap skywriting if you will – big and bold, until the smoke is cleared.
The buzz word everyone used a few years ago was “social capital”.
Social capital, what a brilliant phrase to put in your annual report.
Bonding capital, building social responsibilities, being conscious of your social responsibilities.
It meant nothing of course, because ultimately outside of maybe planting the odd tree or buying a coffee from a local vendor (and dropping off your card on the trip) businesses don’t REALLY change.
But it sounds good. It means well…
AFLW is a league that was based on social capital.
The league itself after all are keen to promote and market that is a league that is a “home” for women, in all its barrier busting, ceiling breaking, look at me putting a W on a wall glory.
It’s a league that espouses opportunity is waiting, that your kid could run onto Princes Park (not the MCG silly! We’re not that ambitious!) and kick a ball with Daisy, Katie and Brooke.
It’s a league that Gil McLachlan claimed was “your home” to women and girls at the pre-season launch.
A home, a place where you can be yourself, and the opportunities will come.
A chance to fulfil all those dreams of being an AFL star.
And yet from a PR point of view, it feels like exactly the opposite.
It’s hard to know what the league stands for, and strangely it’s actually now entrenching enforced positions and hierarchies.
This has been a good year for the old guard of AFLM (we’ll talk more about that next time).
Kane Cornes ended up hosting an episode of Womens Footy at one point, if that doesn’t show the old guard are winning….
To be honest, AFLW feels like a league that emerges in a burst of color, energy, and then disappears, with little care and attentiveness until the next round of PR marketing and the next poorly thought out slogan.
If there’s a concern for the future of AFLW, it’s that it is now being pigeon holed as a niche product, a summer time filler, something to fill in time between the draft and left to wither on the vine in the interim months.
After all, round 1 of the Under 18 womens national championships aren’t being streamed anywhere, meaning we don’t get to see the new generation of players coming through or follow their journey.
Why? We don’t know – surely even on a basic marketing and PR level this would provide content for the AFLW website?
We spoke a lot last season about the numerous marketing failures that occurred in AFLW Season 2, but if we circle back to a PR buzzphrase – cascade the purpose – AFLW faces a difficult time in living up to its messaging.
The rhetoric is generally empty, beyond putting on the league.
Through a lack of planning and foresight, AFLW keeps running into easily avoidable issues, and whatever slogan they go with for season 3 will feel flat without additional resources being put into the league.
Lao Tzu once wrote that people often fail when they are about to succeed – that they don’t take the care at the end of a process that they did at the beginning.
If the league was at least vaguely planned out at the start, it’s becoming harder and harder to ascribe it planning beyond “it’s on, here’s a fixture list” and now there’s another issue to solve, more marketing, the promise of “more reviews”.
So what’s the future of the league?
From a marketing point of view, it’s slipping into being part of the summer schedule, without even the confidence to claim its own space in the market and be bold (sorry, we can’t compete with the tennis).
If the league produces nothing more than summer sporting content, and the peak of its ambition is Katie Brennan on the Beep Test, Daisy Pearce traipsing through the outback with Brian Taylor, and Mo Hope selling Special K, then we’ve hit the end of a very short road. It’s a negative outlook, but how do you shift that feeling?
What are we daring to create here again? Answers on a marketing campaign…
And this feeling that is encapsulated by the story of Bec Goddard…
How you a winner, but she keep comin’ in last place?
For a league that prides itself internally on building social capital, it’s pretty interesting to see how the PR of the league actually masks some strident deficiencies.
What is indigenous round after all, truly? Beyond Robbo holding up some jumpers? Meaningful or symbolic? Does it leave a legacy or come and go as soon as Jon Anderson lists his top 20 indigenous footballers again?
AFL as a whole wants to leave a barrier busting, long lasting legacy of social change, but it’s stumbled around this season, failing to walk the walk.
For every carefully crafted event, there’s a Joel Wilkinson, a Ross Lyon investigation, something to distract from the message.
The pace of social change is glacial, and as we’ll talk about more later, from a PR point of view, we’re very much dealing with mixed and confusing messaging.
This is a league that still has a marketing imperative to “fix” the Footy Show, so we’re not exactly beating down the door with revolutionary thoughts here, no matter the flowery pre season language or when (insert round here) demands it.
AFLW speaks of barrier busting, glass ceiling shattering revolution, but it can’t turn the lights on, can’t come up with a coherent marketing strategy, can’t explain its own pathways, can’t work out a way to maintain elite sportswomen or offer them something sustainable.
Sure, be part of the summer fun, and maybe crack a gag with Lehmo along the way, but beyond that?
Is Daisy Pearce as a boundary rider as good as it will get?
In AFLW, the leagues most recognisable coach, Bec Goddard, is gone, unable to find work in the male coaching ranks to supplement her passion for coaching and provide income equivalent to her full time job.
Instead, the Crows lost her, football lost her, and it’s left to question the marketing rhetoric.
What are you selling at that point? How do you face the marketplace when your primary female coaching inspiration has left the game dis-enchanted and with no place to go?
The feeling when her replacement was Matthew Clarke, part of the male inner circle, it was hard not to feel deflated.
It’s not a Clarke story, it’s not even a male story, it’s an opportunity story.
The old guard of ex Male footballers can draw on networks, champions, referees, people with influence.
How do you extend that courtesy to female aspirants? Coming from a long way back, at a historical disadvantage?
Does a club, which is at heart a modern business, have a responsibility to invest in social capital? Should they care?
The strangest thing about all this is football club PR departments are triply delirious when any male footballer, past or present, heads down to a womens game, snapping photos and breathlessly reporting it on social media.
Those same PR departments don’t think Katie Brennan is marketable “because no one knows who she is” (true story) and don’t realise the positive story that was Bec Goddard or work a way for an injured female star to have the same opportunity to assist in coaching, male or female.
Fox Footy after all was delirious that Sauce Merrett was running around for the women, Heath Shaw hijacked an entire game with his dinner bet, and Daniel Menzel got praise on social media for just turning up to AFLW training.
Again, sticking to messaging, you can understand why PR departments think of the obvious “look! someone they know! At training! Buying dinner!” – but they don’t think long term, don’t want to try segmented marketing to female fans, don’t want to put out a tweet with negative reaction from “those” people on social media.
So everything works as it “should” – male footballers are able to go down to female training and (here’s the science bit, concentrate) build networks in the female game to help them coach.
The same courtesy doesn’t extend the other way.
Rather than AFLW working to help female coaches, it’s now cutting them off because they don’t get into established football clubs, while players and ex-players can.
Everything in life is opportunity, what you know, who you know.
As an aspiring female coach, you have less access now to that network than Daniel Menzel.
So how do you fix entrenched positions that deny opportunities: can you market with an ad campaign?
Do you implement a female version of the “Rooney Rule” (which yes, is an easily circumvented rule, but it had a positive intent)?
At the heart of the leagues aspirations is whether we’ve hit some sort of impasse, some sort of ceiling for the league.
That everything for now has gone as far as they will allow it to grow. That the league is hitting the very ceilings it markets that it breaks.
Think of it this way – how does an aspirant female coach meet a football club president?
Financial reality mean you appoint someone from the existing coach ranks right?
Someone you know? Someone you already work with?
The league thinks in time the Pearces and Brennan will be well known enough to put themselves forward to coach AFLW teams, but what about the rest of the year?
What encourages them to stay?
If AFLW is a short lived summer season, what does Daisy Pearce do for the other 10 months?
The ladder isn’t going both ways on this one.
For a male coach, there’s a likely assistant coaching role to get back to, the way things are going.
If the league is moving away from social capital, you can imagine that AFLM teams are going to do what works for them as a business – and that, of course, is existing coaches. Hell, maybe even Heath Shaw gets a run at this rate…
Thus it’s not a meritocracy, it’s about opportunities.
When the same opportunities aren’t given to all candidates, the notion of merit is fundamentally flawed.
Relationships are everything, and the league hasn’t thought through how short term communication objectives can lead to long term relationships.
When the league blinks as soon as the Herald Sun criticises it, and the league isn’t even able to work through coherent pathways and consistent messaging, no one should be surprised AFL is working around to what it knows – male coaches with existing relationships, rather than taking risks or changing the system.
After all, Bec Goddard won a Premiership and it got her no further in the coaching ranks.
If she can’t succeed, if all that it got her was a few extra inches in a January summer profile, and nothing meaningful, we can circle back again to what are we selling with this league?
Matthew Clarke might be a tremendously successful coach, but he can’t be the representation of vaulting ambition that Bec Goddard was, he can’t market the league like Goddard does.
And if he does succeed, then he’ll be rewarded….with a better assistant coaching job in the AFLM ranks…maybe even in time a senior coaching job…
We Fly As One as long as it’s financially expedient isn’t quite as punchy we guess…