With the luxury of hindsight, most PR crises seem utterly avoidable. But are they? To answer, let’s start by considering a recent crisis from the world of professional sport.
The decision of Scottish professional football club Raith Rovers to sign a player, David Goodwillie, who in 2017 was ruled by a judge in a civil court case to have raped a woman, has triggered the biggest crisis in the club’s 140-year existence.
Rovers’ high-profile sponsor and lifelong supporter, author Val McDermid, pulled her financial backing and put the spotlight directly on the club’s board. Its women’s captain, and then entire women’s team, resigned. Influential representative voices gave impactful responses, pointing to the negative message the club’s decision sent on sexual violence and women in sport.
Political leaders like Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown (also a lifelong supporter), were heavily critical of the signing, urging the club to ‘think again’. Social media reaction was cutting. Even CNN was reporting the story.
Retreating to the bunker
To the people of this community football club that few outside of its hometown of Kirkcaldy had ever even heard of, it was probably scarcely believable.
In those critical immediate hours after the issue became public, the club dug itself into an even deeper hole by issuing a statement (subsequently removed from its website) stating their decision to sign Goodwillie was ‘purely a football decision’. Tone deaf and showing all the signs of a bunker mentality, it merely served to fan the flames.
As the fallout worsened, it unfolded that the original decision to sign Goodwillie was taken in a pressured environment. Aware of the player’s conviction, the decision to sign the player or not was put to a vote of the board, with four voting in favour and two against, both of whom subsequently resigned in protest.
The club was now in a full-blown storm, one it had clearly not anticipated and was evidently ill-equipped to weather. After days of damaging scrutiny and in the grip of a groundswell of negative sentiment, Rovers hit the eject button.
A commendable apology was issued. The club announced that it had ‘got it wrong’, that Goodwillie would not be selected to play, and that it would ‘enter into discussions’ regarding his contractual position. But the damage was done. Given Goodwillie has a binding two-and-a-half-year contract, the financial and reputational cost is still to be fully quantified.
Days later, the club’s manager, in reflective mode, said the following: ‘We just completely underestimated the feeling and the depth of feeling that has come from that signing. We did not anticipate that at all. If we could turn the clock back from everyone’s point of view, we would do it in a minute. Everyone has lost here—there’s no winners in this.’
The anatomy of judgement malfunction
One sentence above all others from the manager’s comment goes to the heart of this and most PR crises: ‘We did not anticipate that at all.’
While some crises can be the result of incompetence or dishonesty, they are generally in the minority. The majority can be traced to ‘judgement malfunction’ by decision-makers at critical moments.
Decision-makers generally have to exercise judgement on multiple issues. They often do so informed by the expertise of outside experts—accountants for financial results, lawyers for contracts, HR consultants for employment matters, and so on.
Sometimes, the issues under consideration are clear cut. Often, they are nuanced, influenced by differing views and interpretations. It’s in this latter scenario in particular that one’s judgement senses should start to activate.
Yet, often inexplicably, they don’t. Judgement malfunction occurs. It presents in various forms. Humans are human. We sometimes see and hear what we want to. Groupthink kicks in. We don’t want to appear ‘weak’. We convince ourselves that everything will be fine, that it’s too complicated for others to understand, that the lawyers have already signed off on it anyway.
Limited time or a pending deadline may be at play, and we do not want to be responsible for delaying completion of the task. Siloed organisational thinking is common, particularly among leaders and organisations who fail to place a value on reputation.
Then the tremors start, slowly at first before gathering pace. Disaffected stakeholders, enraged Twitter feeds, and excitable journalists create intensity. Pressure builds, people frazzle, self-preservation can prove irresistible—the dam bursts. Even then, decision-makers can fail to see the wood from the trees, defaulting to litigation rather than mitigation.
Regrettably, failure to think of those at the heart of the issue, in this instance, a victim who experienced major trauma and hurt, is often a feature.
That judgement malfunction can happen to highly capable and qualified people is difficult for many to comprehend. What were they thinking? Who was advising them? What seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight is subsequently a mystery, including, oddly enough, to those responsible for the crisis.
A penny for the thoughts of those at the top of Raith Rovers. If they could turn the clock back to the period before that ill-fated board meeting, what would we find?
The decision to sign Goodwillie and, indeed, any player would have involved input from their manager, chief executive, board members, accountant, financier, lawyer, and medical professional. Was a PR expert involved at decision time? The fallout suggests otherwise. At best, such expertise was only availed of after the crisis exploded.
As Raith Rovers’ reputational rehabilitation journey begins, how ironic that the expertise it now depends upon the most could have helped it avoid this mess in the first place.
About the author
Dan founded 360 to deliver intelligent communications as a service. Since 2011, he has cultivated a diverse and skilled team of professionals who share his vision, ethos, and passion for redefining and reshaping PR. Dan works in close partnership with some of Ireland and Europe’s leading CEOs and senior executives to build their organisations’ communications cultures and equip them with the tools to succeed in fast-changing political, commercial, and social landscapes. Previously, Dan was a senior government and political advisor during Bertie Ahern’s term as Taoiseach and communications director for the Irish Tax Institute.