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Can FIFA rescue its tarnished reputation?

Image Courtesy of Demosphere, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Demosphere, flickr.com

When FIFA president Sepp Blatter addressed his 400 staff a day after announcing he was stepping down, he received a ten-minute standing ovation. It’s not so much a bunker mentality inside FIFA’s Zurich headquarters; more a parallel universe.

The scale of the crisis engulfing football’s governing body is so acute that people are now asking: can its reputation ever recover from the corruption scandal?

One of our areas of expertise at PHA Media is crisis management and I was asked by Sky News to suggest how FIFA could deal with the reputational issues threatening its very existence.

In a crisis of this magnitude, the first thing that needs to happen is an honest appraisal of the situation by senior management. The standing ovation given to Blatter suggests we are nowhere near this scenario.

If FIFA was any normal organisation, the correct course of action would be a public apology by the new chief executive – in any other organisation Blatter would have been forced out immediately, not allowed to stay on for several months in a naked attempt to choose his successor – followed by a wide-ranging internal investigation, punishment of wrong-doers and implementation of meaningful reform. It is impossible to imagine any of these things happening.

Instead, FIFA will be dragged through the courts, not just for weeks or months, but for years to come; this will not be a drip-drip of bad publicity, it will be an avalanche, as the full scale of its corruption and venality is exposed.

The example of the International Olympic Committee, which managed to recover its reputation after the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, has been cited as proof that FIFA too can come back from the brink. But the IOC acted swiftly; punished the guilty; and reformed the organisation, bringing in external members to give it a fresh perspective.

FIFA’s entire governance needs to be overhauled; it needs a modern board of directors, with a chairman and a chief executive, not a president presiding over a 24-man executive committee, which meets twice a year. It’s hard to see that happening on Blatter’s watch.

So, is there anything FIFA can do to begin repairing its reputation? In a crisis this bad, you need to find a way of changing the narrative. It needs to be something big enough to move the dial – something radical enough to change perceptions. It needs to be a Big Bazooka.

Let’s pretend for a moment FIFA was capable of a rational response and serious about cleaning up the mess. I would advise it to do three things.

First, immediately announce it is voluntarily re-running the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups rather than being forced into doing so by the courts further down the line.

 

Image Courtesy of KUNVAR, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of KUNVAR, flickr.com

Secondly, publish in full the Garcia report, which it commissioned into the scandal, but has never dared to share with the outside world. That would send out a message that transparency is finally he order of the day.

Thirdly, end the farce of its voting system, which gives the football association of the Cook Islands (population 24,000) equal status with football powerhouses, such as Germany or Brazil. It is this flawed organisational model, which has done so much to fuel the corruption at the heart of the organisation.

In any crisis, it is imperative to leverage an organisation’s positive assets. The strongest message that FIFA could send out is a reminder that it organises a global competition which unites the world game. No football fan wants to see the sport go the way of boxing where fighters contend for rival belts, making it hard to produce genuine world champions whose titles are respected as proof of their supremacy. And neither do the sponsors, who pour in $1.6bn for the marketing rights to the World Cup.

FIFA has consistently extended football’s horizons, making it a truly global sport. There could be positive messaging around the $550,000 a day it puts into football development projects if only the work it has done to help impoverished nations could be disentangled from the venality of too many recipients.

What FIFA needs, above all, is a credible new leader – an outsider, untarnished by its poisonous legacy, someone with the stature of Lord Coe, whose integrity in the sporting world is widely recognised.

As it happens, the man who masterminded the greatest ever Olympics was once recruited to FIFA’s ethics committee amid great fanfare. It didn’t last. He served in the post for a while, but – funnily enough – decided it wasn’t a job for him.

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