Sport is a multi-billion-pound, worldwide industry. Most countries compete against each other for the right to hold sporting events such as the World Cup, which can bring in considerable amounts of revenue and greatly boost economies. So, it was no surprise when on 27th May 2015, the Federation International Football Association (FIFA) was embroiled into a crisis when several of its senior officials were implicated in a scandal. They allegedly received more than $150 million in bribes connected with the awarding of broadcast and merchandise contracts as well as World Cup tournament locations. The scandal was covered by all major news outlets from newspapers to broadcast and exposed the dark side to the governing bodies behind football and football business in general. In reference to this, the football industry, often characterised as “scandalous and facing a crisis everyday”, is an ideal example of an industry where crisis communications management can be considered a necessity. Scholars have widely used Benoit’s (1995) theory of image restoration as the focus for an array of studies that take a closer look at the image restoration strategies of many disciplines. These vary from politicians to celebrities, large corporations to smaller businesses, as well as government entities, but the professional sports industry has been slower to apply image restoration theory to sport.In terms of the strategies FIFA adopted, FIFA’s President, Sepp Blatter, responded to the allegations and subsequent arrest with a brief address to FIFA Congress. The audience, however, was global. In the following days, Mr. Blatter gave a television interview and appeared in other media outlets where he attempted to repair FIFA’s image. The response from Blatter was not only an attempt to repair the image of FIFA, but to restore confidence in its stakeholders. Image repair is very important to organisations as a damaged image can have huge repercussions that affect stakeholders’ confidence in the organisation and it can also adversely affect the organisation’s revenue.
An organisation does not often initiate action to protect its image without first experiencing an image attack. Scholars note that an image repair takes place when two conditions exist, the first being when an organisation is held responsible for an action, and the second being when the action is considered negative or offensive. Thus, the two conditions had to exist for FIFA to make the move to protect its image.
Though Benoit has discussed ways to repair image when the two conditions described above occur, he does not identify the degree of organisational responsibility that may necessitate a certain type of image repair response. However, Coombs (2007) has focused on identifying such levels of organisational responsibility during a crisis and defines crisis responsibility as “the degree to which the organisation’s publics attribute fault or blame the organisation for a specific crisis”. Coombs (2007) identifies three levels of responsibility: the first is intentional where the act was done purposefully or is due to preventable human error, the second is where the act is accidental or due to a technical error, and finally where the organisation is a victim of a natural disaster or rumours. It is usually on the first intentional level that the organisation is charged with crisis responsibility by its publics. This is relevant to the FIFA scandal as the public held FIFA directly responsible for the crisis as the acts were clearly intentional and thus, preventable.
As discussed earlier, Benoit (1995) breaks his image restoration strategies into five broad categories: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. FIFA’s President’s immediate response was to use multiple strategies; however, he chose not to use the recommended approaches. Instead, Blatter, in his initial response, evaded responsibility by using defeasibility. Whilst he used corrective action as recommended by scholars, he did not do so with mortification. His use of defeasibility was evident in his claim that he had no control over corrupt FIFA officials and that “he cannot monitor everyone all the time.” Though he noted that people held him ultimately responsible, he refused to accept responsibility and failed to show mortification. Yet, scholars have found admission of responsibility, along with mortification and corrective action, to be effective in image repair.
Blatter did, however, alter the use of strategies after his initial speech of May 27th. Three days later, he gave an interview to Radio Television Suisse (RTS) where he demonstrated an adapted attempt at image repair. He moved away from defeasibility and adopted denial, reducing offensiveness of the act, and corrective action but continued to deny personal responsibility. Blatter also adopted two tactics to reduce offensiveness of the act. The first was to minimise the incident by telling the audience: “It’s no longer a storm, it’s less strong at the moment.” The second was to attack the accusers.