Bernard O'Riordan, Clarity Media Trainer
If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that Australia’s major sporting codes are as vulnerable as any big company when a crisis hits.
The integrity of Australia's two major football codes - the AFL and NRL - was severely (and perhaps unfairly) tarnished after a bombshell report from the Australian Crime Commission suggested the use of banned drugs was widespread in Australian sport.
Rumours and suspicion have cast a dark shadow over clubs and players just weeks before the start of the 2013 premierships.
Hot on the heels of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball and match-fixing at FIFA, most of us are probably becoming immune to scandals in world sport.
But for Australians, this is closer to home and it has tainted the image and reputation of the nation's favourite past-time - an industry worth nearly $9 billion.
That makes sport almost as big and valuable as Coca-Cola Amatil ($10.5 billion market cap) and more than eight times bigger than JB Hi Fi ($1.08 billion). So it's an image worth protecting.
That's possibly the biggest battle now facing the nation's sporting administrators: how to convince corporate sponsors not to pull their money while persuading the masses to maintain the faith when the foundations of sport seem to be crumbling.
It's a timely reminder for sporting organisations - even those operating on the smell of an oily rag - of why they need to become more professional in the way they anticipate, plan for and respond to a crisis.
Just as a football club would never send its players into a big match without time on the training paddock, the same rules apply when it comes to managing and responding to a crisis like this. You need to plan for it, practice it, and hopefully never use it rather than face a crisis with no plan at all.
In the 24-hour news cycle, the mishandling of even the smallest situation in sport can quickly snowball, exposing brands, sponsors and fans to a full-blown crisis that can take years to recover from. It can also ruin careers.
One of the easiest and most important things every sporting organisation should do is ensure their people are speaking with 'one voice'. This eliminates the risk of contradiction and it also puts a credible face on your organisation when there's bad news to tell.
When the ACC handed down it's report last week, I noticed one NRL club broke this basic rule. The club boss, the head coach and a number of players were freely commenting in the mainstream media, as well as on Twitter.
Now, they might have nothing to hide. But the risk is that too many voices can jeopardise an entire crisis response because an organisation loses control of the message and what is being reported.
As a result, the public will decide for itself whether they've done anything wrong.
Bear in mind too, there’s no point talking to the media if your own employees have not been briefed in an open, timely and truthful way. If these are the people you rely on to represent your organisation and actively support your efforts, make them your first priority.
While you may not always be able to anticipate a specific crisis, you should be able to clearly define the procedures and protocols to follow if and when bad news hits.
Here are some simple tips every sporting brand should consider as they face intense scrutiny over the coming days and weeks:
Recognise what's at stake: Most fans think of a sporting brand as a friend, and like any relationship they expect that friend to apologise if they've been let down. So with so much at stake, ask yourself whether your sponsors, fans and employees are going to be satisfied with the way you are responding? The more open you are, the more you will protect your brand and reputation in the long run;
Respond early: How you respond in the first few hours of a crisis will set the tone for how your situation is likely to be perceived and reported. A sincere, timely and open response can go a long way to healing the hurt in any valued relationship. Your goal is to get information to your supporters and sponsors before they get it from less reliable or damaging sources, like Twitter. But stick to the facts and don't speculate;
Own up: If you know someone in your organisation has acted improperly, they need to be accountable for their actions sooner rather than later. Don't let one rogue drag your name and the hopes, dreams and trust of fans through the mud. In any crisis it's important to admit mistakes, say you're sorry and quickly get to work rebuilding your reputation;
Target your message: It’s important to tailor your message to various audiences across numerous channels and really show that you are listening. That means using your own web site to its full potential, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Brief your staff to ensure messages are correct, consistent and clear;
Lead from the top: It's a given, but in any crisis the media and the public want to hear from the CEO or chairman - senior executives who instill confidence and who understand the issue from the public’s perspective. Tough questions will be asked and credible responses are needed, so this is not the time to put forward a "fall guy" like your media manager. A true leader faces the facts, is accountable and delivers results.