There are some things said by a client that are guaranteed to induce heart palpitations in a PR professional:
“Well, I’m just going to answer ‘no comment’ to everything.”
“Why don’t I just tell her all the secret stuff ‘off the record’?”
“I’m not speaking to that journalist. I don’t care who he is.”
“I think it’s time we reviewed your annual retainer fee, don’t you?”
“I’ve been looking at your expenses. And I think we need to talk.”
“Surely the details of a consensual inter-species relationship are of interest to no-one bar myself and Flossy?”
Perhaps topping the list would be “but surely there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” This would clearly be the utterance of an utter fool – you’d certainly never hear the phrase pass the lips of former BP chief executive Tony Hayward, former children’s services head Sharon Shoesmith or former TV personality John Leslie.
There is, however, an industry that habitually brushes aside ropey PR – indeed, it casually sweeps such negativity underneath the mounds of banknotes it generates year in, year out.
It makes you wonder – is there no such thing as bad publicity in sport?
Let’s look at footballer Carlos Tevez (not too closely mind – he’s no oil painting, unless the oil you’re using is for a Y-reg Ford Fiesta engine). The occasional Manchester City player allegedly refused to play in a vital game for his team – in the aftermath, he was described as “a bad apple”, epitomising “what most people think is wrong with modern football” and “a disgrace to football”.
And that was by just one man, within the space of one sentence. Masses of outraged news discussion followed, naturally leading to a mass supporter boycott of the morally bankrupt sport, an instant dismissal for the disgraced footballer and a cessation of all footballing activity.
Or, it would’ve done if any of this really mattered.
The bad publicity surrounding one millionaire footballing gargoyle was nothing more than hot air. He wasn’t sacked. Attendance levels remained undisturbed. Football continued to be played.
By last week, Tevez, who had spent most of January being courted by football teams across the globe, was in-line for a Manchester City comeback.
An example has truly been made of him.
There are two other Premier League players presently attracting such opprobrium, you’d be forgiven for assuming they were bankers (actually, if you’d peered over their shoulder at an ATM, you’d still think they were bankers, but I digress). These players have generated enough newsprint disgust to fill an entire edition of the Sun on Sunday.
But, in the time it’s taken you to work out who I’m referring to, they’ve earned enough dough to buy both Snobs nightclub and the chippy ‘round the corner.
Despite their alleged transgressions, both continue to go about their business of running, kicking and making unfathomably ill-judged media comments. They’ll both stay rich and they’ll both continue to be employable as long as they stay fit and able. Thus both men will be largely unaffected by their public personas taking a battering.
For some sportsmen, even battering each other in public won’t change much in terms of the sport they represent. If anything, the change in terms of profile would be a positive one.
In terms of notoriety, the orange cordial Kia-Ora had held greater significance than Dereck Chisora – that was, until last Saturday, when Chisora apparently brought the boxing world into disrepute by unhappily slapping a fella outside the ring. Much huffing and puffing ensued, with words like “disgrace”, “travesty” and “tarnish” making welcome appearances in the public domain.
If that wasn’t enough, after losing the fight he was actually paid to compete in, Chisora ensured his place as a future pub quiz answer by embarking on another non-competitive brawl – this time with the celebrated (in the privacy of his own brain) David Haye.
Sports journalists once again donned their hypothetical cloaks and picked up their metaphorical scythes, citing the unsavoury incident as the final death knell for boxing.
Personally, I thought they should’ve spent more time referencing the classic Dr Strangelove film scene where a character implores that there is ‘no fighting in the war room.’
That’s because I’m pretty certain more people YouTube-d the post-fight contretemps than watched the actual WBC-endorsed match-up.
For the first time in a decade, people have been talking about heavyweight boxing again. No-one’s truly scandalised by a couple of dim-witted alpha males shouting their mouths off – within a couple of weeks, the outrage will subside, and boxing’s profile will have been given a lift the official Chisora-Klitschko fight alone would not have induced.
This bad publicity will turn out to be good for a sport which heralds its most recent glory days as those when a convicted rapist ruled the roost.
Moving away from kicking and punching to pedalling, even the comparatively sedate world of cycling tends to steer its way through precarious times.
Despite being someone who once endured a miserably dull week in Paris, I’d resist suggesting the best way of experiencing France is as quickly as possible, fuelled by emotion-deadening stimulants.
However, you might allege that approach worked for Alberto Contador, two-time winner of the Tour De France – except earlier this month, he was handed a two-year doping ban and stripped of his most recent Tour win.
Before anyone grandly suggests that this action marks The End of Competitive Touring Cycling as We Know It, remember that it wasn’t too long ago that another winner rocked the sport by being guilty of doping offences – 2006 to be exact.
As far as I know, the Tour will once again take place later this year (as in 2007, 2008…), and will continue to attract millions in both sponsorship and spectators.
There are, sadly, a few rare occasions where bad publicity does have a monumental effect on the reputation of sport – the reaction to tragedies such as Heysel or Hillsborough changed the way people watched football in Europe; in Egypt, the ramifications of the Port Said disaster have necessitated the premature end to the season’s Premier League.
On a more personal level, the sad tribulations of Justin Fashanu, England’s only openly gay footballer, discouraged any further homosexual players to risk inciting media or public scrutiny.
But even in light of these terrible incidents, football continues to be a multi-million, money making machine – bad publicity keeps being publicised yet supporters keep on supporting and players keep on playing.
When it comes to sport, perhaps there is no such thing as bad publicity.
* Keith Gabriel is a Birmingham-based PR expert