What the Cronulla Sharks teach us about the News Cycle

The Cronulla saga is dragging on and on. The media are having a field day with the club and in one way or another the focus on the club’s on and off field discretions (and its culture) has claimed some pretty major scalps, including:

  1. Matthew Johns, high profile media star and former player
  2. Chairman Barry Pierce
  3. CEO Frank Zappia
  4. Captain Paul Gallen (lost the captaincy but is still playing)
  5. Greg Bird
  6. New signing (and drug taker) Reni Maitua

I wouldn’t be surprised if it now claims Ricky Stuart as well… his team isn’t performing, he was sacked as Australian coach for his tirade against a referee, and he’s now been embroiled in this whole CEO scandal.

The Sharks need a change of culture pretty quickly in order to save the club – and part of the cultural problem is a problem endemic in club sports – where mateship rules and indiscretions are swept under the carpet.

There have been a number of different scandals that have almost damaged the Sharks brand beyond repair. In fact, it may well be past the point of no return. The scandals came at a time when the club was already in dire financial straits – they’re in debt, they’re looking to sell or get the NRL’s blessing to relocate, since the Johns scandal they’ve been hemorrhaging sponsors – with their primary sponsor also pulling the pin.

They’ve been caught up in immorality, racism, violent assault and drug taking. And the media is loving it. The Sharks are buried in a quagmire of bad publicity – which is a PR nightmare (or opportunity if you like Crisis Management). And it’s been pretty poorly handled all round. The board has failed, the CEO has failed, the Shark’s PR girl is one of their main accusors, only the NRL and the NRL’s predominant media partner have come out of it in improved positions.

The NRL has taken a pretty down the line, hardline, stance – calling for cultural change and including to back its associated club. David Gallop has had far too much practice in this sort of situation to do anything less than a good job.

Nine has put Matthew Johns through the ringer (gaining great ratings in doing so) and managed to both distance themselves (through his sacking), show empathy (through Phil Gould’s tears on the Footy Show), and they’ve left the door slightly ajar for Johns with the Sam Newman precedent… they’ve also changed the content of the Footy Show – and made it less offensively boorish and more about the game.

In a couple of cases – particularly with Matthew Johns and Frank Zappia –  there has been a clear instance of media manipulation as their respective PR people try to turn the tide – discrediting whoever has made the claim against them… in both cases women, and in both cases about inappropriate treatment of women.

The Sharks have an endemic cultural problem – but that’s an altogether different topic. But they have also failed grossly in managing and protecting their brand. When the accusations first came to light they should have immediately stood down their board and elected fresh faces (which they tried to do but this was politically circumvented by the current board), sacked the CEO, and started a massive proactive “cultural clean up” – instead they’ve, to steal a mafia term, “gone to the mattresses” – they’re trying to fight it out, while hiding. The Chairman was re-elected unopposed at a board meeting, the CEO was given support despite obviously financially mismanaging the club – and not taking appropriate action regarding the culture. And they’re paying for it – because the net effect of taking these steps has now been realised – but it wasn’t voluntary. And it looks like the media has forced their hand.

They’ve also tried to play the media outlets against one another – which is never a good move. Fairfax blasted them for allegedly engaging in a number of immoral practices to essentially keep the players happy – and they ran to News Ltd to publish a counter story – now their ex-PR representative says the stories were true. News Ltd now has egg on its face.  When managing a crisis you should never, ever, lie. It is, if there is a worst time to do it, the worst time to do it.

After Matthew Johns was brought to tears and the point of collapse on A Current Affair stories started to circulate from “unnamed friends” of “Clare” that she had in fact spent the weeks following the incident bragging about her conquest. Stories that began to paint Johns in a new, less guilty light. Here are two stories from the opposite ends of the media spectrum (ABC and Fox Sports) released within an hour of each other… notice the similarity in the headlines:

Now, after Frank Zappia stands down, we see a story aiming to discredit the key witness in his prosecution. A girl he allegedly punched in the face and then suggested receiving a “spanking” as appropriate recompense.  She apparently signed a document clearing him of wrongdoing. The woman at the centre of the claim is on the record as wanting to keep her job – despite the incident. This couldn’t be a factor? She’s also got that pesky audio recording that would seem to suggest the wrongdoing occurred – despite what a signed, written report might say. Channel 7 is having a field day with that exclusive.

The best PR, if you’re guilty, is to fall on your sword with grace and aplomb. Not to go down fighting. That drags your brand down with you. None of the men involved are bigger than the club they represent – and none of them are acting as representatives by staying on.  They can’t fix the problem when they are the problem. There’s a precedent here too. The Bulldogs have essentially resurrected their brand (and their performances on the field) following a similar cultural cleanout – that encompassed both playing personnel and backroom staff. Their fullback Luke Patten had some wise words for the Sharks to consider…

“I guess the club just made some tough decisions.”

“Anyone that was stuffing up, they got rid of them and they brought (CEO) Todd Greenberg in and he just made decision after decision really – new coach, all new staff, new players and with that everything’s changed.”

“There’s a new attitude and everyone’s working really hard for that and maybe the Sharks, that is something they can look at.”