sunderland, di canio and the pr perspective

So, appointing a manager with a history of making comments about fascism was never entirely a smart move. But did Premiership Sunderland make a tricky situation that bit harder?

by Eva Duffy

Last Monday was never going to be an average day in the office for communications manager Louise Wanless.

That Saturday her employers, Sunderland Association Football Club, had sacked The Nicest Man in Football™ Martin O'Neill after a defeat to Manchester United, the club’s eighth game without a win which saw the team precariously balanced just above the relegation zone.

The announcement of Paolo Di Canio as the new manager was always going to mean a challenging time for the club’s press office. Even as a player, controversy was never far. Most infamously, in 1998  he earned universal condemnation, an 11-match ban and a £10,000 fine when he pushed a referee during a Sheffield Wednesday fixture against Arsenal, a game I attended and left with a memory of the collective gasp of shock that reverberated around the stadium as the ref toppled backwards in slow motion. 

Di Canio wasn’t the first player to be disciplined for a pushing a ref (there’s a pint in it for anyone who can name any other players guilty of the same offence) but I'm pretty sure his was the only push that knocked a ref over.

Then there was the matter of his political leanings: the infamous quote attributed to him where he says he’s not a racist, he’s a fascist; the tattoo homage to Benito Mussolini; the raised-arm salute to Lazio supporters.

The press office would have reasonably anticipated that this issue would be raised by supporters and the media. If they researched reaction to his appointment at his former club Swindon, they’d have taken comfort from the fact that Di Canio’s relative success as a manager seemed to win over any initial unease. Fans are a single-minded bunch after all, they simply want their club to be winners and football has always attracted "colourful" characters. George Graham, for example, was accepted back into the fold after serving a year-long ban imposed by the FA when he was found to have accepted an "unsolicited gift" of nearly half a million pounds from a football agent.

But on Sunday evening, it was the response of Sunderland's vice chairman that propelled the Stadium of Light's new appointment into we’re-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat territory, from newspaper back pages to 24-hour breaking news. The resignation of political heavyweight, former Foreign Secretary and grandson of WW2 refugees David Miliband, citing Di Canio’s past political statements, meant from that point onwards, Sunderland’s press office would have to suspend the day job to deal with the weight of media interest in what was rapidly turning an examination of the relationship between British sport and politics.

It was at this point that the press office should have stopped treating the media as a communications channel and engaged with them as a stakeholder.  Instead, the club's PR response to the growing reputational crisis it found itself in was to stick its fingers in its ears and shout la-la-la. A statement was issued by the club on Monday in which Di Canio said he didn't want to talk about politics because he's not a democratically-elected Member of Parliament and the club CEO expresses her disappointment at the reaction to Paulo's appointment. The statement not only failed to address the issue, it ended with a defiant declaration that neither the club nor Di Canio would make any further comment on the matter.

By now the club's communications department was in crisis management free fall. With no clear strategy for containing the story, it lurched from one setback to another. The Durham Miners Association demanded the return of a banner on permanent loan to the club and pointed to their history in fighting fascism and Nazi-ism. Local religious leaders expressed concern about the appointment. And there was the car-crash press conference where the beleaguered Louise Wanless tried naively and unsuccessfully to enforce a football-only rule on reporters' questions. The transcript makes cringing reading for anyone who's ever managed a press conference, culminating in Wanless berating reporters for telling her how to do her job when they queried the PR implications for the club.

On Wednesday evening, some 72 hours after the first ripples of a PR crisis were felt, the club issued a statement in which they clearly hoped to draw a line under the week's events by clarifying that Di Canio does not support the ideology of fascism. The miners' association and fans' groups reacted positively to the clarification.

Watching impartially from the sidelines, it's easy to speculate about why the club allowed the story to gain momentum and provide headline news for three days before finally taking action. I think quite simply, it was a failure of risk management; while the press office could be forgiven for not identifying the risk that their vice-chairman would resign, they failed spectacularly to identify the risk of reputational damage that would accompany their perceived arrogance in refusing to address the genuine concerns of supporters, locals and community leaders. That failure to identify the risk meant they were incapable of delivering a coherent crisis management plan in mitigation, allowing the story to mushroom.

They say a week is a long time in politics and Sunderland's press office can certainly vouch for that this week. No doubt they're looking forward to a return to business as usual where events on the pitch dominate the agenda. After all, that relegation zone is precariously close.

Eva Duffy is Media Relations Specialist at Northamptonshire County Council.

Picture credit.