Scottish public relations agency's take on FIFA's PR machine. Holyrood Partnership's advice on how to make the most of your business.

by Stuart Milne

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

 Scottish public relations agency take on FIFA

Showing off successes can go wrong unexpectedly, without thoughtful public relations

FIFA’s PR machine has not been incredibly successful at convincing the football world of its shining excellence.

Even the news that the planet’s favourite sporting event, the World Cup, would be expanding and thus increasing fixtures and involvement has been met with some sneer. Who would have thought that the concept of more football would inflame football fans?

In fairness to the media team at soccer’s governing body they have not been given an easy time of it.

Sepp Blatter has been an industrial-grade-super-electro-magnet for corruption, general business unpleasantness and the odd moral conundrum (to put it mildly).

The decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was close to the final straw on the back of an incredibly beleaguered, staggering and screaming donkey. A donkey that was finally put out its misery when reports of slave labour compounded the bribery accusations that had surrounded the tournament from the get-go.

Years and years of murk had already put FIFA on the back foot in the media relations world and they have not been – and maybe never will be – able to leave those poisonous days fully in the past.

So, while they have been testing the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity”, they must have been eager to get some positive attention every once in a decade.

Between the home nations’ media maelstrom over teams emblazoning their shirts with poppies in an act of remembrance and allegations of money-grubbing over the new world cup format, it would be easy to think that FIFA’s PR team have the toughest job in the business.

And that might just explain why, late last year, they were in such a hurry to roll out the news that its anti-racism taskforce had been disbanded following the completion of its duties.

Yay! Positive headlines all round, right? Er, no. Unfortunately it proved to be yet another PR banana skin, with a range of influential football people reacting with everything from bewilderment to outright anger.

Why? Because the messaging appeared to suggest that FIFA had finally conquered one of the oldest and most enduring stains on the world’s most popular sport – racism. Clearly that is simply not the case.


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Public relations people will be among the first to tell you to make hay while the sun shines, and take advantage of your successes and achievements increasing their reach and generating good sentiment towards your company.

It should be obvious to the most fleeting observer that the way this news came out was not the right way to go.

In fact, the FIFA Taskforce Against Racism and Discrimination, was set up in 2013 to develop strategies to tackle the issue. It was disbanded because: “It had a specific mandate, which it has fully fulfilled.”

So, at heart, the footy organisation had set out to investigate and tackle some specific issues in the game and they had now, purportedly, reached the end of their set task.

For sake of argument, let us say that the FIFA taskforce have completed their specific tasks to their satisfaction. Not a miraculous success story but ultimately not necessarily a story to draw the ire of the world’s media.

As a supporter of a small nation I welcome the World Cup expansion and think FIFA, for once, are getting an unduly hard time of it. I certainly couldn’t say the same thing about the racism taskforce – here are the three things FIFA should have remembered when handling that particular story:

  1. Context is everything.

The lesson for any business is to carefully identify your context before making any grand pronouncement – or even more mundane announcements.

FIFA might have been keen to get some good news out there and identified this completion of duty as just that.

However, where caution should have been the order of the day, instead FIFA were too gung-ho in their self-praise.

The real story here is one of small gains, not a major triumph – yet it managed to come across as FIFA patting themselves on the back.

Add in to this the expectation that the world governing body of the planet’s most popular sport should be making, at very least, small gains against the blight of racism and the story becomes less “FIFA beat racism” and more “FIFA continue to do what is expected”.

This is a lesson all organisations could do with taking on board.

Before you leap into fully fledged PR mode think about how your news will fit into the current climate. You may be overshadowed and, worse, you could have your good news turned against you.


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  1. Choose your words carefully

“Fully fulfilled” was the take away quote for every journalist in the UK and scorn rained down upon the body whose sport is affected by racism scandals on a fairly regular basis.

Ultimately though, in the context it is supplied in above: “It had a specific mandate, which it has fully fulfilled”.

This claim isn’t, to my mind, necessarily over-reaching or unacceptable. The problem arises because of the nature of the taskforce.

When you are dealing with any subject as touchy, or nearly as touchy, as racism you must be incredibly careful when claiming or discussing ‘success’.

Any claim should be prefixed (and probably suffixed) with a note about the distance still to go and the challenges faced by everyone in eradicating the prejudice and endemic unfairness in the world.

The work FIFA has put in over the life of the taskforce could have been the most successful fight against racism in history and they would still have been ill advised to have claimed to have “fully” fulfilled their mandate.

Absolute terms are magnets for headlines so weigh your words.

When you meet a target, a news release might be warranted but be wary of shouting too loudly, especially if meeting it marks the end of your efforts.

  1. Not all successes are newsworthy (for you)

The biggest lesson for any business or organisation from this maelstrom is that you should keep a tight lid on any story that broaches such a sensitive subject unless you have a demonstrable outcome and a favourable environment.

Take the similar frenzy around the US Government’s “mission accomplished” banner during the Iraq war.

The US will have claimed the victory based on narrow parameters and similarly narrow gains to put a positive spin on an increasingly unpopular foreign venture, failing to recognise that, far from getting people on side, they would draw attacks from those hostile to the war in the first place.

It seems, therefore, that rather celebrating meeting a target, cognisant of their context, they should have kept shtum and kept on keeping on.

Indeed, this is what makes the story for the papers, the fact that FIFA are disbanding their anti-racism force.

Taking this into account, the story is not the success of the taskforce but that it will cease to exist.

So take note, you may have met your objective or won something important for you, but not necessarily everyone will share your joy!


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FIFA are undoubtedly an outlier, they carry a weight of expectation in numbers of people concerned with their dealings and in ties to years upon years of allegations.

What they do offer is a peculiar case study showing the fullest extent in which decisions can go for or against you.

In microcosm they can display just what the communications world is about from the PR equivalent of a 30-yard scorcher to political own goals.

Make sure your business works with a PR agency that will help you avoid costly own goals in your messaging

Holyrood PR is a multi award-winning Scottish public relations agency which helps its clients to get messaging right. Understanding the tone and mood in the media landscape is almost as important as the message you want to get across.

We’d love the chance to hear about your business and suggest ways you could improve your bottom line and staff morale and productivity through telling your positive stories to the world.

For a free, no-strings consultation, contact us on 0131 561 2244. Or take a few seconds to complete the simple, online form below and we’ll get straight back to you.

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