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Why slick PR couldn’t save Sepp Blatter


Image Courtesy of luisab23,

Image Courtesy of luisab23,

I came across this gem of a press release last night: “FIFA, world football’s governing body, and its President Joseph S. Blatter have today instructed their lawyers to file law suits against Andrew Jennings, a sports writer, and his employers at the “Daily Mail”, an English tabloid”.

The 2003 press release related to “a wholly inaccurate article” published by the paper. “The governing body is no longer prepared to accept such an underhand approach and has now decided that a British
court is the appropriate forum to establish the facts and expose the Daily Mail’s fiction”.

If memory serves, no court case was ever brought against the Daily Mail for the article, which alleged by FIFA executives – it rarely is in such cases, when bluster and expensive lawyers are the weapons of choice of a cynical regime trying to silence its critics. Think Robert Maxwell.

Indeed, a year later when I became Sports Editor of the Daily Mail, we published a series of searing articles by Jennings about the corruption at the heart of FIFA. He is the investigative journalist who has done more than any other individual to bring about Blatter’s downfall. I don’t believe we were ever sued on that occasion either, though we received plenty of threats.

Fast-forward 11 years. It’s Tuesday evening in Zurich and journalists are given two hours notice of a press conference at FIFA’s headquarters. Only a handful of journalists make it in time – Jennings isn’t there, he was long ago banned by football’s governing body from all its events – and when they arrive even FIFA’s own staff haven’t been briefed about the momentous event that’s about to take place.

Then came the farce of the pre-press conference preparations, with nameplates at the top table being laid out and removed just as quickly. The veneer of a controlled, managed event was stripped away. In the end it was Blatter’s show – he took the stage alone in a last, pathetic attempt to bring a semblance of dignity to his surprise resignation statement.

He failed, of course. His rambling statement, in which he called for fixed terms for FIFA presidents – a few days earlier the 79-year-old had been elected for a fifth term – was, at best, an example of chutzpah. Less charitably, it was yet more evidence that the head of football’s governing body long ago lost contact with reality.

And therein lies the lesson. However slick the PR machine, if the message is rotten then no amount of massaging can conceal that fact. A few days before Blatter announced his departure, his director of communications was insisting the arrest of seven senior colleagues was an opportunity to cleanse the organisation. No one laughed out loud, but everyone knew the net was closing.

And no press release, however well crafted, could alter that reality.

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