One of the great arguments in PR that occurs from time to time revolves around the open platform nature of social media.
The great question revolves around putting your brand out there for public discourse, and whether to let conversation, comments and commentary flow freely.
There are advocates to opening a brand up to even the most strident of criticism because they feel it’s the best way to learn – believing that open advocacy is the best way to correct any flaws and that such things would happen anyway, that shutting down conversation is inherently misguided.
Even those who advocate open discourse would acknowledge however that it is negligent sometimes not to change the conversation.
We’ve talked often on this blog about reputation management, the day-to-day management of your brand, the words associated with it, and the need to maintain your role in the marketing conversation, to not let things drift.
AFLW still hasn’t got the reputation management of their marketing right, even in the midst of a very positive week for their brand.
No one should undersell the importance of getting a 4 year deal for TV rights, a deal that ensures AFLW will be visible on Fox Footy, variants of Channel 7 (pending being bumped for the Jungle Book) and the streaming service Kayo.
This is positive news, a positive message to sell.
They even seemed to correct one of last seasons most egregious marketing mis-steps by interviewing Erin Phillips on the website as a follow-up action to the TV deal news.
It was amazing that last season, when they had Phillips as one of the most famous sportswomen in the country, they used her in no ads, no launch material, didn’t use her as a focal point, and basically did nothing with her talents.
It’s no secret that Australian advertisers are still ambivalent to promoting female athletes outside of narrow marketing spheres, and Phillips would have been the perfect marketing poster child to go into new marketing avenues and opportunities.
To be truthful, Australian advertisers and marketers are still reluctant to market female athletes, and no matter how they choose to word it, they are still of the opinion that female athletes don’t have the individual recognition or fan base or visibility to sell product.
Phillips could have been used much better to break this barrier down and be bigger than the sport, and those opportunities could have been taken had AFLW had more surety and belief in itself.
In fairness, there are baby steps being taken – AFLW has increased its social media presence and are trying to market better – ticking into season 2, the AFLW website was only being updated once ever 4 days, and that has greatly (by urgent necessity) improved.
The TV deal, to tie back, is vitally important – the details will be fascinating to see, in terms of it gives AFLW the opportunity to make programmes that normalise the league as part of the calendar, an AFLW review programme for instance.
Messaging and advertising influences culture, and social change comes from not just making a one off spot for advertisers, but living what you say, and challenging the online trolls and getting on message is entirely possible.
The opportunities missed in season 2 can be fixed, and a TV deal with long-term surety can only be a positive….
Straight ahead, no turning back
We spoke in the last blog post that the greatest marketing strategy AFLW can invoke this year won’t involve a variant of using the word “create” on a banner or any ad campaign (though the latter is still important).
Truthfully, the single greatest step the league can take forward this year is to challenge the trolling, the negativity and the persistent criticism that comes with any online announcement or post about AFLW.
We spoke last year about how Sarah Perkins welcome to Hawthorn message was hijacked on social media by Hawthorns own fans and how Herald Sun letter writers got far too much import into the leagues direction.
When Mark Robinson wrote THAT article last year on AFLW, there was no official response, no one willing to question the inaccuracies and mistakes within the article.
When Mo Hope had her clash with Mick Malthouse, Malthouse had in his corner Jason Akermanis and the old guard of AFLM football.
Now the TV deal announcement got an open forum for male fans to do as they do, particularly under the Foxtel announcement, and post everything you can imagine.
It’s an important juncture for AFLW in Season 3, and another season simply can’t drift by with isolated pockets of players and alternative media fighting the PR fight.
AFLW can implement marketing strategies that are granular, that understand the demographic that watches its own product, that come up with a unique voice that understands the concerns of the fan base.
It’s possible with a granular approach to continue promoting the positives of the sport (kids meeting their heroes, individual excellence, and fan accessibility among others) with a proactive approach to its critics that provides a clear message that the days of trolling are over.
AFLW participants, and female footballers in general, by research, don’t feel supported in the main by the league or respected as athletes.
Another season drifting by amidst a cloud of marketing negativity and apathetic messaging could see young fans and participants drift towards other sports that are more willing to support them.
AFLW has a significant problem which it still hasn’t tackled – wasting an entire season neglecting its own reputation management and lacking surety in its own product after one game emboldened its critics.
Male fans are able and allowed to criticise AFLW in ways that simply don’t happen with other female sports, able to show disrespect to the league without anyone speaking out in response.
This extends not just to fans, but old AFLM players and participants, who are given the aforementioned space in media to criticize the product, to demand rule changes, to opine on concussions and knee injuries and the quality of play as if their opinion is important.
It sounds a lot to ask, that in the space of a short summer season to take on this embedded hierarchy where the opinions of a Malthouse, a Kennett, a Cornes or an Akermanis are allowed to speak on a league that will never be to their tastes.
The league needs to do it however, because to tie into the first part of the post, everytime a Malthouse gets a page in the Herald Sun to talk about how AFLW should be more like netball, it re-inforces advertising prejudices that exist, it affects things in ways people don’t necessarily realise.
A reset for AFLW in season 3 shouldn’t just stop at press releases.
Day to day, AFLW needs to be bolder, and re-assert its right to exist as a part of the sporting landscape.
AFLW needs to be conscious that its fan base is savvier than they believe – that simply putting a product on air isn’t everything, that the messaging they send out daily on their own product is being absorbed by potentially young participants.
The message sent out from AFLHQ and it’s past participants and bastions of male exclusivity is still that you aren’t good enough to play our game unless WE approve, unless we set those standards for you, you must continue to alter for our approval.
This year, more than ever, it’s time for the league to market itself with surety and self confidence, because if they won’t do it, it’s hard to know who will be there for the fight in a few years time.
Through it ain’t through now
Purely for a marketing comparison, the AFLW TV deal came in the same week as a mini AFLX teaser blitz, with suitably leaked hyperbole to the appropriate journalists.
Through idling summer journalists looking for easy copy, AFLX is able to get positive coverage for very little tangible information.
In the Herald Sun print version, the AFLX coverage was closer to the back page than the AFLW TV announcement, relegating tangible news and genuine PR behind speculation and teaser trailers for things that are unlikely to happen.
In marketing, AFLX promotion has become the ultimate blank canvas for lazy journalism – assumptions are filled in, in the absence of real news.
Lance Franklin is captaining “Team Goals!” – see, it’s easy, there’s no validity to any of it, it’s a mythical product, something that doesn’t require a specific marketing plan when Jay Clark et al are doing that job for you.
The marketing blitz posited somewhat uncomfortably that the Indigenous team would be known as “Team Skill” (from the same pool of marketers that believe all Indigenous players are magicians) and that the marketing would revolve around superheroes and caricature posters.
Aside from the cynicism, you can say that AFLX has an un-earned swagger and self confidence.
When we talked about Season 2, and the lack of marketing surety, that’s something AFLX has apparently never had a problem with.
AFLX will simply continue to change the buzz words over and over until something sticks, they don’t lack confidence to push this product.
They are actively seeking sponsors with buzz words and cross promotions that are fanciful, and throwing ideas out over and over.
It’s a marketing effort they don’t put in with AFLW – with AFLW they immediately discuss why things can’t be done, with AFLX they discuss with sponsors some mythical New York tournament dream.
The diffence remains genuinely frightening for those who believe in female sports.
The more worrying thing is that in the midst of that spurt of nonsensical summer hype, there was talk of a 300K pot of money available to participants just to play AFLX under a Marvel designed jumper.
From a marketing point of view, this night of FUN (thanks Brad Johnson) is only being designed to create a showreel to sell around the world of AFLX, that’s understandable, but it’s an unproductive long term spend.
It’s strange to us on a basic level that they would choose to make this kind of investment in a disposable product such as AFLX when country football, Tasmanian football and AFLW could use the money more productively.
Those far flung rugby fields in Hong Kong must be really lucrative.
Of course, last year the AFLX “Xs”, the giant Xs behind the goals, had a construction and transportation cost around the grounds that eclipsed the entire marketing budget for AFLW Season 2, as we’ve discussed before.
Far be it from us to want to see AFLW shoe-horned into a night of AFLX (that’s a very slippery slope, given there’s pressure on certain events to transition to AFLW rather than full football anyway) we’d never begrudge AFLW players getting paid in any way possible.
A tournament with 300K prize and participation money and deals for AFLW players?
How forward a step would that be in marketing female sports?
That could with the right strategy go around the world as publicity, rather than spending it on a night of AFLX that will forgotten as soon as Brad Johnson stops screaming about how much fun everyone is having.
AFLHQ is the ultimate in self credit, no blame employees, and they remain conscious of their legacies and tying themselves to projects that work – accepting credit for the work of others.
It remains bizarre that rather than choosing to self promote your legacy as the pioneer of a made up game ultimately doomed to failure, to be the self promoter of teaser trailers to Jay Clark, rather than the promoter of womens sports, is genuinely strange.
It’s negligent, it’s a mis-understanding of the sports marketing landscape, and it’s ultimately self defeating.
At a time when sports marketing is leaning to marketing authenticity, hitching your PR legacy to a made up product is a strange choice.
Standing next to the launch of Team Skill or Speed or Fluff or Ruff at the AFLX launch instead of milking the credit for a significant, potentially (devil in the details) game changing TV announcement, it goes against all PR instincts that AFLHQ normally has.
A league that wasted a chance to promote Erin Phillips in every possible way has a sure marketing plan that if they spend up big and scream loudly, AFLX will take off.
The disparate marketing plans and the spending of prize money to get an evening of Lance Franklin and shots of AFLX to “sell” around the world should be disheartening to AFLW fans.
As long as it exists and takes up resources, AFLW is still waiting to be allowed to dare to create….