13 October 2007

Media complicity


Here in WA there are two Australian Football teams - the Eagles and the Dockers (the Dockers are actually down the river from Perth in Fremantle).

Media coverage of these teams border on fanatical (and at times, farcical). They get saturation coverage, and that’s in the off-season.

The presence of so many young, over-paid, ego-inflated sportspeople creates many problems for these teams at regular occasions throughout the year/s. The Eagles always seem to have someone in trouble (crashing cars while drunk, swimming across rivers to avoid a police breath test, drugs, indecent behaviour, psychological problems, more booze, assaults, association with bikie gangs and other criminals).

Sadly, one of the Eagles former players, Chris Mainwaring, 41, died on 1 October. Media reports suggest there were a cocktail of drugs and alcohol involved, plus marital and financial problems. Mainwaring had a history of being a “party animal” to the point of probably being an alcoholic.

The Eagles management, however, has not been able to change players’ behaviour. This is a worrying sign for a supposedly professional outfit. Chairman “Delta” Gooding just seems to smile every time he’s fronted by the media, with an attitude of “well, what more could we expect?”

More worrying is the media’s role in not exposing more of the antics these guys get up to. When I asked a senior club official how they managed to keep things out of the media, he replied they just ring the journos and ask them to “go easy”. The journalists know that if they break any negative stories they won’t get any future information. To put it in sports journalism’s language of talking in clich├ęs: they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.

The biggest story in many years about Eagles captain Ben Cousins abandoning his car and swimming the Swan River to avoid a police breath test late one night was broken by ABC talkback announcer, Liam Bartlett, now with 60 Minutes. Bartlett had nothing to lose by naming and shaming Cousins, who has recently finished a drug rehab program in the US, and was also one of the last people to see Mainwaring alive.

I’d say the Eagles’ media/PR department is not strong in presenting a case to management on how the club should be focusing on its corporate reputation. That’s blindingly obvious, following the ANZ Bank’s departure as a sponsor. They seem to operate with a narrow, media-only focus, without knowing much of the other areas involved in modern communication.

Meantime, Channel 7 will telecast Mainwaring’s funeral, once again elevating a football player to demigod-like status. The more these people are put on pedestals, without exposing their insidious antics, the more we can expect the youth who follow them to accept this behaviour as normal and something to aspire to.

The local media have much to answer for.

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The PR Lab is a consultancy, specialising on research, reputation management, social media, media relations and the development of measurable strategies that produce results. It is run by Dr Greg Smith, a former journalist and PR professional. Greg worked on daily newspapers in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. He held senior PR positions in the Australian Defence Force, Sydney Olympics and national not-for-profits. He has also lectured in PR at Edith Cowan University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.