Public relations are about telling stories: what does your brand aspire to be?
What words and images do you want your brand to be associated with?
What do you want your audience to believe? Can you engage your audience in a positive vision?
What phrases do you want to stick in their minds? How much do you trust your audience will follow you and believe in you?
Can you make them believe they are part of the vision of the future you wish to sell, that they are part of the transition, even when they aren’t? Can you take them on the journey of re-invention with you?
Once the best PR department in all of sports, AFLHQ has lost the art of basic communication – once the masters of spin, they’ve stumbled and tripped over themselves this year, failing to communicate a vision that their audience can buy into.
That vision that they’ve tried to sell is that AFLM is in trouble, that the game itself is mired in congestion and low scoring and that without radical intervention football itself won’t survive.
Why does there need to be new rules? Why aren’t these trial matches being broadcast or footage made available? What is so bad about the game that it needs this revolution? None of those has been explained, or at the very least none of this has been sold properly to the masses.
For something as emotive as sport, selling change is inherently difficult, but the AFL haven’t even tried. They’ve suppressed all dissent and come up with a vision of the future, without nailing down what that vision actually is, let alone finding a way to sell it.
The best they’ve managed are some helpfully selected clips in David Kings lab of congested passages of play, and over promoting the comments of Malcolm Blight, who’s shown more commitment to complaining than he ever did coaching St Kilda.
They’ve supplemented this by talking down Friday night football, and through using their self invested stake holders to prosecute the case for change without ever explaining it beyond some strange hyperbole.
How AMAZING it would be if they players could just show their SKILLS in SPACE…oh it’d just be amazing!
If they threw their promotional muscle behind listening to fans, promoting the teams and the players of the moment, and promoting the finals and the sense of occasion around the build to September, everyone would be better off – instead, they have changed the conversation to this and this topic? And for what reason?
One of the greatest pieces of self promotion for the rule changes was pushing Patrick Dangerfield out to mutter affection for 2005 when Chris Judd “burst out of packs” – that’s 2005, when Andy D said Sydney were boring and everyone was worried about flooding.
For reasons best known to them, Gil McLachlan chose this to float an off broadway thought bubble than “dead games” could be used to trial some of these exciting new rules (a fast goal square! AMAZING!) in the middle of one of the biggest weeks of the season was an awful piece of communication.
It’s been strange that AFLHQ seems so determined to float these thought bubbles (“AFLX in China! No New York! No Hong Kong with Warwick Capper!”) – even if there is need to get into the papers and dominate the sporting narrative, it’d be better to come up with something fully formed. Why float so many ideas? Hoping one sticks?
Are Gil and Hocking so unsure about their own legacies and determined to be remembered for something, anything, that they want to be associated with Zooper Goals and a Hong Kong hit and giggle in November? It’s genuinely strange, weekly solving problems that just don’t exist….
In a week where Richmond went past 100000 members and in a week where Collingwood and Richmond played at the MCG in the biggest home and away match of the season to date, to fill in that week with negative reactions to Gils thought bubble was beyond strange.
Apart from David King, who claimed a match played under rules trials would somehow be the “biggest ratings match of the year” and Ladbrokes who jumped on board to somehow claim that it would result in a betting surge, the public reaction was a mix of apathy and disgust.
If you take that public relations is the art of managing strategic communication to build mutually assured relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders, AFLHQ have lost the basic art of communication.
After all, reputation management is a crucial part of public relations, tying into brand management and coordinating your personal identity. Success does not happen overnight, but failure often does.
Reputation management is about managing your brands reputation and identity every single day, taking care around the message you want to sell.
And all of a sudden, AFLHQ isn’t coping with reputation management at all well…
They didn’t sell AFLX as a necessary part of the football calendar, and that had the full might of AFLHQ self promotion behind it – from a screeching Brad Johnson screaming how much FUN everything was, complete with shots of kids waving to the camera.
They couldn’t sell the changes to AFLW, even though they tried some evasive words and tried to claim they were “spirit of the game adjustments” – imposing a memo that let in the trolls and haters in to denigrate the call without respite.
And now they are trying to impose rule changes on AFLM, and the best they can use to sell the changes are “game adjustments should give fans calmness”. AFLHQ have favored symbolic PR, the use of emotive positive images about SKILLS and SPACE instead of building a substantive relationship between themselves and the public.
Symbolic communications and emotive language are all very well, but there needs to be clear communication when those symbolic vagaries (“the game will be better!) aren’t enough.
AFLHQ still think the medium (ex players with “influence”, swamping social media etc) matters more than the message.
This hasn’t been the case at all. It’s time to actually change the message and messaging, and provide some substance to the message.
The last thing AFLM wants to do is impose a product on its marketplace that has flaws and problems with the rules, because there are countless sports around that have fallen very quickly from grace.
You can make several small mistakes, but very few big ones…
As an example of AFLHQ choosing the medium over the messenger, The Herald Sun trumpeted on the back page “1/3 of footy fans want the game to change!” – no need to rhetorically ask why the other 2/3 were discounted…
Mark Robinson on 360 (an invested stakeholder) said that AFLHQ should just govern and impose the rules they see fit, which is ultimately what’s going to happen, but it’s a little deeper than that, because the audience still needs to go along with the “new” look of AFLM….
And for obvious reasons, every viewer counts – if they fail to communicate the need for changes clearly, they really could be looking at a bleak future….
The hook brings you back
So in the immortal words of Ric Flair, “what’s causing all this” – there’s two PR strands to all this, one we’ll explore a bit more next time, which is the relationship between AFLM and its commercial broadcast partner Channel 7.
Commercial television needs sport more than ever, in its dying days – outside of sport and the occasional special event like a royal wedding, it’s exceptionally rare for a TV programme to draw more than one million viewers nationally.
Value changes and the emergence of media innovations mean that Channel 7 need something exceptional to have people huddled around the TV to specifically watch their product (any product) and Carlton vs the Bulldogs in a 60-40 game isn’t going to cut it. They need more surety going forward that their Friday nights aren’t blanked out.
Sport is thus vital to a commercial TV stations future. Commercial TV is left paying large amounts of dollars for a product they desperately need, mutually assuring the sport its own financial future.
In return, Channel 7 have a vested interest in more goals – Tim Worner said himself that “the 30-50 seconds after a goal is the most valuable real estate on TV”. In a year of being sold poor Friday night games and games with long time periods between goals, Channel 7 have flexed some muscle and demanded changes to change the TV product that is being served up.
When we mentioned above the AFLW memo and the “spirit of the game adjustments”, that was entirely to do with a game between Carlton and Collingwood that produced 3 goals and immense panic that Channel 7 couldn’t crowbar in enough Special K adverts in the second half.
Channel 7 have a vision (we’ll discuss more next time) of producing a sport akin to the NBA – complete with day-to-day narrative, players that are “open”, and individual superstars. They dream of a league where “any media member can walk up to any player and ask a question”, something they look at with envious eyes towards the basketball.
We’ll discuss next time that in Channel 7s mind, this transaction will allow, say, Brian Taylor to become “co-branded” with a player (lets say Jack Higgins) so you watch that player play, then you’ll want to stick around to watch that player do an interview with Brian (or whoever) on your app later, in an example of niche customisation.
In their ideal world, each player would be interviewed post game, and you could watch that, maximizing eye balls. Roaming Brian is an awkwardly crowbarred attempt to test this dream scenario for 7. The game won’t be enough anymore, it will be secondary to the “entertainment”.
Win, lose, your team, not your team, this is about increasing a television audience – making games into individual events. This obviously needs goals and action and excitement – this is about increasing goals and “action” so people don’t switch off. And obviously, ads are a huge part of that, never forget that.
On top of which, the PR metrics that AFLHQ have used to measure the future are indicative of younger fans drifting to supporting individuals and needing stimulus to stay engaged. This part is going to get worse and worse (in terms of noise) with the Marvel deal next year, turning the noise and volume and “fun” up to extraordinary levels.
In addition to the NBA, the AFLHQ have been keen to spin and create their own version of the Big Bash, and were genuinely disappointed at the resistance to AFLX. The idea of kids coming in with purchasing power is incredibly appealing, and when the Marvel deal ramps up, marketing possibilities truly open up.
When Hocking talks about “game adjustments” or “spirit of the game initiatives” he’s coming up with softening language to communicate the need for change isn’t driven by any notion of sport, it’s driven by the need to create something that is bigger, bolder, something that resonates across multi media platforms.
Synergy. Platform driven. All the made up PR phrases we came up with in 2006 that now seem to be worryingly real….
In an era of media complexity, AFLHQ are seeking to simplify their product to be what a commercial television network wants it to be. It’s a strange decision, understandable given the money involved, but strange.
Manipulating a sport around the notion of keeping people huddled around a television set and around the notion of sitting in front of a box waiting for your Brian Taylor fix…
Humble old football just doesn’t cut it by the metrics they use to measure success, and the risk of a bad game needs to be eliminated as much as possible. Risk minimization, not any sporting notions, are at the heart of everything.
Give the networks a failsafe, and everything seems so much better…