Ireland wins wooden spoon for crisis communications at Rio Olympics
It has been a bad few weeks for Irish Sport. This, despite our heroics on the water and gallant efforts on the track and in the boxing ring. The series of scandals and scuffles that have erupted since the start of the Olympic Games have completely undermined our athletes in Rio. It has been inflamed severely by a lack of crisis communications know how.
For any organisation, business, sporting body or high profile demagogue, crisis communication plans are not a nice to have. They are essential. They can, when called upon, save your reputation, your job, your business, or in extreme circumstances even a life.
Here are a few of the essential elements of crisis communication planning. As you will see the Irish sporting community has a lot to learn.
1. Predicting potential crises
You might never know when a crisis will hit. But you can often guess what can go wrong and plan for this. Start any crisis plan with a long list of what might go wrong. If you are one of the lucky ones whose crisis is on your list, you have a big head start.
In the world of sport one very predictable crisis is a doping scandal. For the OCI and IABA the holding statement should have been drafted 15 years ago.
However when on the eve of the Olympics Michael O’Reilly of our much heralded boxing team failed his drug test there was no sense that such plans existed. The ensuing confusion can’t have helped the members of the boxing team who remained.
2. Know when a crisis is a crisis
A crisis is anything that threatens to undermine your reputation or disrupt your business. And recognising you are in one is the first step in executing your plan.
From the earliest rumblings of the ticketing scandal the OCI should have recognised their crisis and acted accordingly. Instead of rattling sabres, Minister Shane Ross and Pat Hickey should have come together, feigned concern, offered to cooperate, and moved on to supporting the athletes. Two weeks into the scandal the OCI have only now agreed to cooperate with any Government investigation, commission an independent one of their own and established a Crisis Management Team. These were the right steps, but they came far too late to stave off significant reputational damage.
3. Issue a statement as soon as possible!
Your first statement doesn’t need to have information. It is needed to control the flow of information. A prompt statement says ‘I am the expert. I am the one who will have the info!’
After the arrest of Pat Hickey on Wednesday the OCI hit the nail on the head with their response:
Whereas the Minister, still smarting from the previous days’ battles got a little over excited:
4. Gather the information & define the message
Your crisis management team (know who this will be in advance!) then needs to swing into action. You need to gather all of the information as soon as possible. It is only when you have this that you can effectively plan your message. And the message is the most important part of the plan.
The new acting President of the OCI got his message wrong. He first stated “we can’t make a comment.” Then he went on to make a comment “we will defend ourselves to the hilt.”
Last time I checked the OCI weren’t the arrested one; their President was. The job of the message is to protect the organisation. It should have appeared cooperative and contrite. It should have refocussed attention on the all-important athletes. Had MKC been advising the OCI, I’d have suggested a more appropriate statement would have been:
“We like everyone else are shocked by today’s developments. We will cooperate fully with all investigations in Brazil and Ireland. But for the time being my focus will be on supporting our athletes at these Olympic Games.”
5. Pick a (really) good spokesperson
It is essential that you pick a credible and trustworthy spokesperson. Any crisis plan must give itself options. After all you never know who it is that will be arrested.
The Olympic Council of Ireland got this one wrong. You need your spokesperson to be someone as unconnected with the crisis as possible. Where was the CEO?
6. Finally, keep your cool!
Panicking, losing your temper or losing control will never get you anywhere in life. Particularly in trying to communicate through a crisis.
So spare a thought for poor Michael Conlan. World champion, world number one, and out and out favourite for a gold medal. We all know what happened next.
We all understood Mick’s frustration and devastation. But as he stomped around the ring, middle fingers in the air and launched his defamatory and foul mouthed tirade on RTÉ, he lost control. Right on him, a lot of us thought, but he had lost control. Had he come out and played the modest devastated victim, shed a tear even, the sponsors would be queuing up. Now hemight be considered too much of a liability.
At the end of the day when communicating you always need to keep your objectives close to hand. For the Olympic Council of Ireland it should have been the remarkable achievements of our 77 athletes.
By any measure this Olympics has been a success. Two medals is a feat we have only surpassed 3 times before, 8 times we came home with none. Alas this is not what will be remembered on Reeling in the Years in the decades to come.