Qu’est-ce qu’on dit “international pr crisis” en francais?
In July 1998 the Champs-Élysées was packed with millions of raucous French, and “Le Marseillaies” was being sung in every quarter of the country. In one long week, the French were celebrating both Bastille Day and winning the World Cup, putting them on top of the world. National pride swelled and French football was France’s premiere brand.
Contrast that with this week’s front pages of Le Monde and Le Parisien, chronicling the daily cataclysmic soap opera that passed for France’s appearance at this year’s World Cup. It’s bad enough that Les Bleus, the French team, didn’t repeat an appearance at this year’s tournament finals. That failure alone wouldn’t generate this much venom.
Rather, it’s the French Football Federation, which has been tone deaf to the steady diet of scandal and controversy involving Les Bleus. Things have gotten so bad that French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched his sports minister (what a cool job!) to dress down the French team, and is meeting with star player Thierry Henry to get to the bottom of things.
The French team was already on thin ice after squeaking through the World Cup qualifiers only by beating Ireland with a blatant handball. At that point, France needed PR counsel on how best to re-engage the public, and also a crisis communications plan to deal with future incidents – on and off the field. And that’s just the beginning.
Several players, including national icon Franck Ribery, were implicated in a prostitution sting with an underage girl. Then, right before Les Bleus’ World Cup exit, star striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against the team coach. In protest, the entire team boycotted practice before its next match. Captain Patrice Evra got into an altercation with his fitness coach – who promptly quit and stormed off the field on camera. After that, coach Raymond Domenech bizarrely read a letter publicly by the French team attempting to justify their boycott.
This is a classic case of an organization not understanding the need for sound crisis management. Many of these incidents could have happened behind closed doors. The public theatrics and lack of a coherent response drove this debacle. In crisis public relations, the key imperative is transparency with your stakeholders so they understand what’s happening – ensuring you, and no one else, directs and controls the media narrative. Still, when tensions run high, it behooves an organization’s leaders to behave well in public, lest they add more fuel to the fire of public contempt.
Of course, there’s always a way out – even a total implosion allows for an organization to start over fresh. For France’s sake, this requires an open, honest team apology to the nation, and a promise to go forward with honor, candor, and controlling their fits. No doubt this phase of the PR crisis is over, but we’ll go out on a limb and predict there’s more to come…