It was no surprise to see broadcaster and football personality Eddie McGuire fumbling to disentangle himself from yet another self-inflicted disaster. But the case highlights the reputational risk to associated organisations when individuals overstep the mark, and their failure to effectively manage the issue.
It started during radio discussion about a charity event where Australian football personalities were to slide into freezing water. McGuire said he’d pay $20,000 to see high-profile sports journalist Caroline Wilson go down the slide, and would make it $50,000 “if she stayed under.”
His fellow football broadcasters guffawed and joined in the “joke,” but it all turned sour when commentators, anti-violence campaigners and politicians of all stripes piled on to condemn the comments. And to make it even worse, the broadcast coincided with football’s White Ribbon Round, designed to focus attention on combatting violence against women.
While McGuire is no stranger to controversy, it took him three attempts at an apology before he finally abandoned excuses and apologised unreservedly.
But as the outcry spread, it became a genuine test of issue management for the organisations drawn into the controversy, and few enhanced their reputation. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten cancelled a scheduled interview with the radio host, branding the comments “unacceptable,” yet the radio station simply said it “had discussion with those directly involved” and apparently saw no reason to take any action against their star.
The Collingwood Football Club, of which McGuire is President, said it took the issues raised by the comments seriously, but accepted McGuire’s apology and, rather surprisingly, used the opportunity to express its “complete and ongoing support for his position as President.”
Meanwhile CEO Gillon McLachlan of the Australian Football League condemned the comments but stopped short of punishing the men involved. Which in turn triggered even more media and community outcry, given that in the very same week the League had fined a football coach $30,000 for criticising a match referee.
The only organisation to emerge with any dignity was carmaker Holden, a major sponsor of Collingwood, which categorically condemned the broadcast and announced it would be reviewing its association with the club. Holden subsequently said half their multi-million dollar sponsorship would be diverted to Collingwood’s women’s team and community programs.
For Caroline Wilson, the sometimes controversial journalist at the centre of the affair, what seemingly rankled most was her belief that McGuire was forced to apologise. “I think he had to be dragged to that point, kicking and screaming. He was, I believe, pressured to do so and I believe that he is not really sorry personally to me. But at least he’s sorry that he used that language and I think that’s a start.”
Her comments echo the headline on a New York Times essay by Deborah Sontag at the time of the Clinton/Lewinski scandal. “Too busy apologising to be sorry.” For any organisation or individual facing a serious issue or a crisis, the best way to protect reputation may be to spend less time worrying about the timing and the wording of an apology and more time demonstrating in a meaningful way that they really are sorry.