Well, that’s the headline I keep expecting (and hoping) to see every day.
Liverpool Football Club has shown an astonishing naïvety and lack of common sense in their approach to handling the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra incident. From the time that the initial complaint was made by Evra, the club has adopted an aggressive, belligerent and very public stance to dealing with the matter.
Whoever is in charge of the Public Relations at Liverpool should be fired as the advice they are providing is counterproductive and hurting the brand.
For those who have not followed the story between Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, a brief recap.
An incident occurred on 15 October 2011 during the Premier League fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United, following which Evra claimed that Suarez racially abused him “at least ten times”. The matter was reported to the Football Association (“FA”) who launched an investigation.
Liverpool’s initial response was to deny, deny and deny again. An unnamed Liverpool spokesman was quoted as saying “The first thing we did, as you would expect, is ask the player and he has categorically denied using any language of that nature.” This approach does not tend to end well as Bill Clinton found out during the Lewinsky cigar debacle. I understand that the club feels an obligation to protect and support a highly prized asset, but PR101 should have steered the club clear of such a definitive statement until all the facts and the evidence had been presented.
Following the decision to investigate the issue, the FA made it clear that both clubs were not to discuss the matter in the media. From this Guardian article on 16 November 2011 it was noted that “The FA is acutely aware of the sensitivities between the two clubs and asked them both at the outset not to risk inflaming the situation by discussing it in the media.” From a PR101 perspective, Liverpool have managed another epic fail in not respecting the wishes of the FA in this regard. Suarez and manager Kenny Dalglish, in particular, have made numerous media statements and comments which have not shown the club in a positive light.
On 20 December 2011, the FA released a statement saying that Luis Suarez had been “banned for eight games and fined £40,000 after being found guilty of misconduct, regarding using insulting words towards Patrice Evra of Manchester United. Unfortunately, the FA did not (for reasons best known to themselves) release the detailed reasoning behind their decision which is to follow in due course.
To call the reaction of Liverpool FC hysterical when they released this would be a huge understatement. Understandably, the club would be upset that the FA made a decision against their player, but from a PR perspective this is where cool heads are required to assess the situation and to come out with a level-headed response. Instead, it appears that the PR gurus were high on a combination of crack and heroin when they decided to run the statement on the club’s website.
The statement contains inaccuracies, contradictions and an accusation of bias against the FA, which Liverpool FC have based entirely on the word of Luis Suarez without having studied all of the available evidence (because it hasn’t been released yet). As argued here by Andi Thomas, “Liverpool fans are being told by their club to reject a decision they have not seen the reasoning behind, simply on the basis that the club disagrees with it.”
The club continues to dig its own grave by making statements about Suarez not being racist and how “some of his best mates are Tokyo Sexwale”. They point to Suarez being of mixed heritage, the work he does for charity and how he has black teammates. The matter decided on by the FA had nothing to do with whether or not Suarez was racist because it is still possible for a person to make racist remarks regardless of whether that person is racist or not.
To make matters worse, the Liverpool PR team took another leave of absence prior to Liverpool’s game against Wigan on 21 December 2011 at the DW stadium. This time it was the Liverpool players who released a statement on the club’s website and warmed up wearing t-shirts in support of Suarez. Missing the point entirely, they stated that “We totally support Luis and we want the world to know that. We know he is not racist.” I don’t have a problem with the Liverpool players rallying around a friend in a time of need, but I have a problem when the comments made are misguided. To repeat once more, the FA made no mention of whether or not Suarez was racist and Evra also echoed the same sentiment. That has not, and is not, the issue here.
Liverpool’s public handling of the Suarez matter has been extremely poor throughout. One can only hope that the current PR team is sacked and replaced with any person who has half a brain. Here’s hoping anyway.
P.S. Somehow, that initial statement reacting to the FA’s findings is still up on the club’s website two days later.