Football has a pretty shocking record when it comes to its own PR.
From the FIFA corruption scandal, to the newspaper ‘sting’ on former England manager Sam Allardyce, the game seems to be constantly lurching from one crisis to another, while those responsible for running football stick their heads in the sand.
So it’s hardly a shock that the Football Association, and individual football clubs around Britain, are making a complete hash of dealing with the allegations of historical sex abuse that have rocked the game in recent weeks.
It’s a basic rule that, in a crisis situation, you need to take as much control of the agenda as you can – “get in front of the story”, as they say. Football hasn’t done that.
This particular story broke on 16 November, when former player Andy Woodward told his story to The Guardian.
Yet it wasn’t until 27 November that the Football Association announced its own internal investigation, to be headed by Kate Gallafent QC. A week later, the FA was forced to replace Gallafent when questions were raised about potential conflicts of interest.
By then, the media was reporting on a torrent of allegations being made by former players – some of them internationals – against more than 50 amateur and professional clubs, including Premier League clubs Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton. As a result, some 21 police forces had launched their own investigations.
Fast forward to today, and there are now 98 clubs involved in the inquiry, according to police chiefs, and there are 83 separate suspects.
The FA’s investigation has moved from a ‘review’ to a full-blown ‘inquiry’, but that may have been due to the criticism the association had received from many quarters over its handling of the crisis.
FA chairman Greg Clarke has described it as “one of the biggest crises in the history of the Football Association”, and he admitted that “1990s society was sleep walking, and we were part of that problem”.
So why did it take English football’s governing body so long to respond and ignored the basic rules of good crisis communications?
By the time the FA inquiry was announced, at least 20 former players had come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by employees at various football clubs, and the NSPCC had set up a hotline for former and current players to report abuse, receiving almost 900 calls in its first week.
It’s impossible to believe the FA thought the scandal would blow over. Once Andy Woodward came forward, it was only going to mushroom.
At that point, Greg Clarke should have stepped up and announced a full, independent investigation, encouraging players who had similar allegations to come forward.
“We will leave no stone unturned to discover the extent of sexual abuse within our game in the past, or even today,” is what he should have said, adding: “And if the FA is found to be at fault, we will deal with that also.”
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the FA’s reluctance to act quickly was based on legal counsel. Lawyers are paid to stop their paymasters being sued or prosecuted, and in a crisis situation – where you often don’t have the full picture (or you do, and you’re worried about that becoming public knowledge) – keeping schtum can seem like sensible advice.
The problem is, a damaged reputation doesn’t feature high on a lawyer’s list of priorities.
So when journalists – and individuals on social media – start posing those difficult questions (such as ‘What did they know?’, ‘When did they know it?’ and ‘What did they do about it?’) the silence starts to eat away at your reputation.
It’s too early to say how much the Football Association will be damaged by this, but with the sheer scale of the abuse inquiry, and the unrelenting media interest, it’s hard to imagine this not having significant ramifications on how the FA is run and how it polices its clubs.
The clubs themselves seem at a loss as to how to deal with it. They don’t have the communications resources of the FA, and given the pace at which the story is developing most are sticking to a statement confirming they are “fully co-operating” with the FA/police inquiries.
Chelsea are one of the few clubs to break ranks with this position, issuing an apology to former player Gary Johnson, who claimed he was abused by the club’s former chief scout, Eddie Heath, during the 1970s.
But the apology followed the revelation that Johnson had been paid £50,000 by the club to keep quiet about the abuse allegations. When that payment became public knowledge, Chelsea made their apology statement.
Whether you’re the FA, Chelsea or any other football club, the last three weeks have demonstrated just how easily reputations can be wrecked.
Whatever PR and CSR strategies they had planned for 2017, they’ll need to rip them up and start again. When the dust finally settles on this scandal, that’s when the long and difficult journey to rebuild trust will start.