‘In war, groping tactics and half-way measures, lose everything’

  • Napoleon Bonaparte

‘There are times you need the courage to take a great leap; you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.’

  • David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister

For the last fortnight, the AFL has engaged in a silent war with sections of the AFL public over crowd behaviour, a move undoubtedly precipitated by the release of the documentary The Final Quarter, tracing the tumultuous end to Adam Goodes’ decorated AFL career which was marred by bullying and booing.

We knew there was a war going on around crowd behaviour not because of anything the AFL had said, we knew because we saw footage of security guards talking to sections of the crowd, and we read about it on social media.

What was being said on either side of the fence between security and fans we don’t know, and until AFL CEO, Gil McLachlan, fronted the media on Tuesday, we knew even less about why the AFL was doing it.

It was a classic PR disaster: the implementation of a significant change in the direction of a public organisation, plain for all to see, but with absolutely no narrative, no blueprint, no leadership, no articulation of what they are attempting to achieve.

It was a blunder because the AFL effectively vacated the field for several weeks, allowing everyone else to tell their story for them. The AFL in attempting to jump a significant cultural chasm in two small leaps instead fell right into a public relations abyss.

Most organisations with a budget the size of the AFL’s partake in what Public Relations practitioners call ‘crisis media planning’. That is they anticipate what crises they might conceivably face in their industry and make contingency plans to address it, should the worst occur.

The AFL as an industry has roughly 2 reporters for every player and a fair percentage of that media heft is soaked up by the AFL. And yet despite the AFL’s enormous marketing and media wing, there appeared to be no-one advising them on public relations; this in spite of their relations with the public being their essential service.

And what were they saying out there in media land? Figures like Campbell Brown were chastising the AFL for trying to act as a moral compass; Mick Warner suggested the AFL had wrecked the game, while the moderate Gerard Healy rightly labelled the non-response from Gill McLachlan a crisis.

After the media conference

At a belated press conference, McLachlan attempted to balance the concerns some sections of the fan base have with unruly behaviour, and the desire of fans to express themselves passionately at the football. That was achieved with some generic motherhood statements, but the AFL is now kicking the ball from a standing start.

McLachlan ended up conceding ground that he wouldn’t have had to, had the AFL articulated the reasons for a change to crowd behaviour in advance as part of a planned, proactive strategic campaign. But having lost the opportunity to set the tone and framework of the debate, all the comms have become reactive.

The reasons to institute changes in crowd behaviour are compelling, but have been buried under a deluge of grievances and a failure to articulate and give expression to some strong key messages.

Here are some key messages we suggest are likely to cut through and start getting the public on your side, whether delivered via Gil or written up as yarns with case-studies attached to them:

  • People go to the footy to have a good time
  • It’s fine to enjoy the footy and be passionate, but just be mindful that there are kids and other people around
  • Venting is acceptable, but threatening people is not
  • There has been a lot of agro at the footy. We don’t want to end up like Europe with designated fan seating
  • There are some people at the football that want to cause trouble.
  • We have a duty of care to fans. We want to prevent situations from boiling over.
  • Let’s remember that while we love footy, it’s just a game

The greatest lesson in this whole affair is the importance of having a media crisis plan in place so that if a crisis does arise, you know what to say and how to shape the story.