Symbolic gestures in PR aren’t always meaningless – in fact, at times, symbolic gestures can be powerful and supportive, and they tie your brand to something powerful in the moment.
Where a lot of brands, firms and products can run aground is if they continually pivot and plan only symbolic gestures – it’s fair in a questioning age to ask for some meaning behind your gestures, particularly around ethics and fairness.
Since public relations can sometimes be criticised for being nothing but spin, and template apologies can come and go, it’s not unreasonable to truly question a brands commitment to its own words and values.
We’ve spoken on this blog at length before about AFLW, for instance, a brand and a product (there’s that word again) that speaks of female empowerment and barrier breaking glass ceiling shattering women, then delivers little of substance to back those claims up.
A league that provides symbolic support but not meaningful support – that promises a league that is “your home” then cuts the season and the lighting budget and the season itself for its female players.
We also wrote last year about how AFLHQ will promote in their official histories their contribution to fighting racism, but when confronted with Adam Goodes being booed, or the Heritier Lumumba documentary, the official response lacks substance.
By the by, Eddie McGuires hope “Heritier gets the support he needs” still resonates badly with this blog of course.
Thus while symbolic gestures in public relations are not wholly bad or wholly unappreciated – an important distinction – there is a time and a place to take those gestures and provide them with substance and support.
In the era of spin, nothing is truly private, and your communication style will always be critiqued – public relations after all is about how you interact with and manage the public.
Let your stakeholders down, and believe me, they notice.
In the wake of comments in the Senate from Fraser Anning about Muslim immigration, there was a symbolic and meaningful gesture pre-game in which Muslim players Bachar Houli and Adam Saad shook hands and embraced at the pre game coin toss.
The gesture had both meaning and symbolism, and later made the papers of L’Equipe in France and attracted a lot of mainstream attention.
It would behove us obviously to point out a couple of things: it meant a lot to the players involved and for AFLHQ it is one of the most potent images of the season.
Since it was a meaningful gesture to the parties involved, you would have expected the support to be meaningful in return if the gesture is criticised….and it didn’t take long to test that theory…
On the podcast run by Grant Thomas, Mike Sheahan and Sam Newman, Sam Newman declared he found the gesture by Saad and Houli divisive not inclusive and that “there are 600,000 Muslims in Australia, they share no common interest with what we’re on about.’
Most critiques of Newman at this point mention the man, his age or other aspects of his personality, but since this is a PR themed blog, we’ll stick to the messaging and his brand as much as possible.
There’s two things to explore out of Newmans comments – the value of symbolism as discussed above, and the theory that clubs, leagues and players should “stick to sports” and not engage in social commentary or actions.
To deal with the latter first, Newman has long been an advocate that the league especially and it’s participants should stick to sports – and been a critic of any overt display of politics or social activity for the league.
The rationale (and it’s often quoted on slow news days by the Ritas and Bolts etc) is that people go to the game to enjoy the game, not be lectured by political messages or social activity.
It’s an interesting argument with many flaws – firstly, espousing that view ties yourself to a political point, a conservative one.
Newman as we discussed before uses a platform on a network television show to espouse certain political views, advocate personal positions, and promote a certain brand of humor.
We discussed before that one response is that since Newman essentially IS the brand of the Footy Show, it’s one constant over the years, that in a mire of fading ratings, sticking to football might be a lesson he wants to learn?
Secondly, those who espouse those views are often nostalgic for the good old days, when football was much simpler and less complicated with messaging and social actions.
The misnomer in that of course is that if you go back in time, all clubs were tied to the identity, brand and politics of their suburb.
John Elliott will often be quoted in the “stick to sports” pantheon, when he represented a club tied in identity strongly to Liberal Party ideology in Carlton.
Eddie McGuire will at the drop of a hat tell you about Collingwoods “working class” roots and their representation of the working man in the day.
Harking for a day when football didn’t have a political identity seems like the kind of nostalgic wishful thinking that has crept into a lot of modern-day writing.
Newmans “response” on the Footy Show was to again state that the action of Saad and Houli was “divisive” and that he was “entitled to his opinion”.
At which point, strangely, Eddie McGuire invited the audience to give Newman a round of applause and everyone sort of awkwardly moved on.
The Footy Show itself would have read the reports during the week that – in a week when they achieved ratings of just 120000 in Melbourne, an all time low – that they are going to have change philosophy to have a future.
The Footy Show would know that chasing the “stick to sports” crowd or the older “we just want to have a LAUGH!” crowd isn’t working, and Eddie McGuire would be conscious that the brand is dated and in need of a revamp.
The great irony is that the Footy Show as a brand is too divisive to survive, and might have to make social changes to try to appeal to a wider audience, might have to change its focus…
The second point to discuss today is around the lack of response to Newmans comments, particularly from Richmond, Essendon and AFLHQ.
As we discussed earlier, AFLHQ has a reputation in PR circles at being masters of the grand gesture that doesn’t mean too much – colored laces or a themed round or something along those lines, a come and go gesture of support for a cause.
We discussed above, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a symbolic gesture at heart.
People immediately get cynical about a symbolic gesture, but sometimes it is enough to just do something to indicate support.
Even Newmans Footy Show has made symbolic gestures to particular causes at times when appropriate.
In this case, AFLHQ said and did nothing about Newmans comments, as they often do, under the guise of “not giving the story oxygen”.
The McLachlan administration are notoriously slow and unresponsive at times to social issues, needing a long lead in time to get everything legalled and checked with focus groups before responding to an issue.
The argument against “not giving a story oxygen” is one that people use often in situations like this, and it’s an interesting one to discuss, since to comment would have provoked said Ritas and Bolts to the typewriter to pen their template outrage articles.
It’s not one we agree with in this case, purely because it was made in direct response to a direct action on an AFLM football field, one that the AFLHQ will doubtless use to promote social inclusivity in brochures and annual reports for a while to come.
Had Newman made the comments unprovoked, the argument to ignore him would have been much stronger, but this felt like something that needed a response, given the nature of the gesture and where it took place.
It again paints the league as a league strong on symbolism, but slow on genuine action.
Neither Richmond or Essendon made any kind of public statement or social media comment on Newman either, which again was strange given the comments were directly in response to the actions of their own employees.
In fact, for anyone expecting some sort of direct action, one-two segments after Newmans non apology, the guest was Shaun Grigg of Richmond.
Football clubs are even more conservative than AFLHQ, terrified of “distractions” to an extraordinary degree, and even the most innocuous of media scrutiny.
There are public relations studies that show sporting clubs and their symbiotic relationship with media outlets create an inate conservatism – that everyone knowing everyone and not wanting to rock the boat due to the circle of friendships means someone like Newman won’t be criticised, lest it offend a close friend (or a friend of Newman), close a sponsorship opportunity or cause an issue down the line.
There’s also a school of thought that sporting clubs are so focused on athletic achievement, that their focus outside of their own world is very limited, and that something like Newmans comments might genuinely have passed the clubs by.
For a league that forged a lot of its identity on larrikins and characters, these days with so much content to fill, and so many cameras, even alleged poor body language, or smiling post game is somehow a controversy.
So football clubs will be as conservative as possible – they may make the odd social gesture along the way, and a lot of them are genuinely meant, but they are very carefully planned out and workshopped and focused grouped until they are as palatable as possible.
All football clubs – not just Richmond or Essendon – are incredibly conscious of social media posting, aware that one inadvertent tweet can cause a major issue.
Given that streak of conservatism and outright fear, it’s probably not surprising neither Essendon or Richmond made official comment on the Newman issue, but it was still disappointing.
Essendon spent the day after Newmans comments inviting fans to send in photos of dogs in Essendon jumpers, and Richmond sent instead press details about Nathan Brown doing a pre game lap of honor.
To tie into the notion of “stick to sports”, football clubs not commenting on certain issues again is a form of political comment.
Carltons absolute neutral statement on gay marriage was designed to be the most vanilla of vanilla non controversial press statements, and still caused furore, because no comment is still a comment, strangely enough.
We spoke before about AFLM players not speaking up to support their female players, and while different people have different tolerances to political statements and players speaking on social issues, this one felt like an opportunity to make a statement against the Footy Show, that was at the very least supportive.
It was even more strange and surprising that neither club commented on the level that showing support for their own employees in defence of an action that meant something to them would have seemed like a basic action to engage in.
“There was a few comments made during the week and it was a show of support for both clubs … to show how inclusive the AFL is and how united we are,” Saad said On The Mark.
That inclusivity and unity – again to be clear, not from the players involved, but the wider response – was tested by Newmans comments and the response was found wanting.
Unity of purpose and clarity of messaging are important PR concepts, and if the AFLHQ truly wants to promote it’s social inclusivity, it’s time to truly live that message, not only embrace it with gestures.