PR lessons for English football after FIFA debacle

You don’t need to be a football fanatic (or a PR person) to see that the sport’s global governing body has been in the eye of a storm of late.

FIFA and its beleaguered President Sepp Blatter has adorned newspapers’ front and back pages, led the news bulletins and been the subject of an outpouring of online posts that have lasted for weeks.

In the UK and across Europe, the headlines have been overwhelmingly bad. Leading voices have wasted no time in putting the boot in after Blatter eventually announced his resignation in the face of mounting and sustained pressure.

With investigations by the US and Swiss authorities continuing and the future of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups open to question, Blatter’s replacement faces a huge task to steer FIFA into calmer waters. And when your communications director resigns after cracking a joke about his boss, you know it’s been a bad month.

Sharing scepticism

Going by analysis I carried out around online conversation about Blatter and FIFA in recent days (21-29 June), it seems that the scepticism in the UK towards the body is persistent and widely held. This image sets out some of the most commonly used words taken from 18,500 posts sent and shared by people in the UK during this time (if you’re not familiar with this, the larger the words, the more frequently they are being used in posts).

Key words in conversations re FIFA and Blatter
Key words in conversations re FIFA and Blatter

This table in Google Docs
 shows the proportion of posts listed as positive, negative or neutral in tone, alongside information about where the content has been posted and shared [caveat: I have not gone through all 18,500 posts to check the accuracy of this, as we would do with a piece of work involving a client. This is just to give an indication of the level of conversation about FIFA and its leadership].

This information highlights some scepticism, which would make up a larger proportion of the online posts if those relating to games like FIFA 15 and 16 were removed from the sample. When these negative posts are amplified by key influencers and the media become much more visible, it can be seen how the chorus of boos seem to have been used to batter FIFA.

A vision for the future 

What’s most interesting and dispiriting about this scandal for me is the extent to which our own FA and FIFA’s biggest sponsors have failed to engage in this conversation, on a national or international level.

We’ve had tweets from Gary and others, and FA chairman Greg Dyke on the bulletins telling everyone of his dislike for Blatter and the organisation he represents. Sponsors have issued statements outlining their concern over FIFA’s governance, but have taken no action to encourage change to happen.

And that surely has to be the point of any serious PR push on a subject like this, doesn’t it?

Winning headlines by complaining is the easy bit. But if the FA, its European counterparts and football’s sponsors are serious about changing things for the better, they should come off the side-lines and work with partners to develop a positive vision for the future of football that wins the support of other countries. In doing so, they should reach out to those parts of the world who have been strong supporters of Blatter, and continue to be because of the support FIFA has given to developing countries.

That’s a much harder task to undertake, and takes more guts and vision than has been displayed to date. But the opportunity to deliver lasting positive change is huge and is something that PR would be well placed to support. I may be dreaming, but here’s hoping something good will come out of the present crisis.