Liverpool’s handling of the Luis Suarez affair is a case study in poor reputation management. It’s hard to imagine how a global brand with significant resources was able to make such a mess of the incident. That is, until you remember that football is a sport that, so often, provides great examples of poor decision-making and cack-handed management. Clubs are bought and sold, managers fired and salaries agreed often on the basis of little more than emotion. The Premier League’s two richest clubs – Manchester City and Chelsea – are run not as business concerns but as a means of amusing their owners. Why? At its root, football is about how people feel and the value they place on that emotion.
Manager Kenny Dalglish’s conduct is reminiscent of former BP Chairman Tony Hayward, whose prickly, suspicious behaviour following to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico provoked public outrage and condemnation from the highest levels of government. Like Hayward, Dalglish thought not about how the scandal played in the wider world, but how it was playing to his constituency.
Would, say, a large corporation have ordered its employees to don T-shirts in a gesture of support for an employee who had committed an act of gross misconduct? Anyone accused of such an offence in the vast majority of workplaces would have found themselves suspended until the results of the investigation were announced. Would any serious business, after its employee has been found guilty of using racist language, fail to condemn him? Liverpool’s response to the verdict was to aid Suarez in a mealy-mouthed response that fell way short of an apology. Suarez’s words read like a transcript from the film Borat.
For Liverpool supporters to be holding up shirts in support of a player shows that fans would rather believe that Suarez has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by a corrupt governing body in cahoots with an ancient enemy, Manchester United, than accept the verdict of an exhaustive independent investigation. Their claims are, of course, preposterous, and show that some football fans act like members of a cult rather than sports fans. And cults thrive not on reason and argument, but on fervour and passion. This, of course, is great for a brand – passion for and engagement with a product are incredibly hard to generate and can’t be faked. But, this kind of intensity needs careful management if it’s not to become destructive.
The entire situation could easily have been nipped in the bud weeks ago if, after the Manchester United game, Suarez had used his ‘I’m from South America – I didn’t realize I was using racist language’ defence, called Patrice Evra to apologize and made a donation to an anti-racism charity. Job done – and Liverpool would have had a player available for the games he’s been banned for, saved thousands in lawyers fees and not made themselves appear to be more interested in tribal loyalty than addressing the serious and offensive behaviour of one of the club’s employees.
The top Premier League clubs are well aware that the opportunities for future revenue growth come from outside Europe. And the new markets don’t operate like fanbases of the old days, which were largely territorial or handed down from father to son. Fans in Asia, Africa and North America don’t care about the tribe, they care about the brand and what it says about them; which is why Dalglish’s siege mentality illustrates the worst kind of short-sighted, parochial management.