Collingwood fans at the MCG (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

There are times you need the courage to take a great leap; you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.

David Lloyd George, British prime minister (1916-22)

For the last fortnight, the AFL has engaged in a silent war with sections of its fans over crowd behaviour. It’s a move likely precipitated by the release of the documentary The Final Quarter, tracing the tumultuous end to Adam Goodes’ decorated AFL career which was marred by bullying and booing. But you wouldn’t know that from anything the AFL has said. 

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Instead we know this from footage of security staff talking to sections of the crowd. We can only presume this is being done to make the live football experience less toxic — whether that’s addressing racist taunting, foul language, aggressive behaviour, or fights. But others have been less charitable. Former player Campbell Brown is chastising the AFL for trying to act as a “moral compass”; The Herald Sun‘s Mick Warner says the AFL has wrecked the game, while the moderate commentator Gerard Healy has rightly labelled the non-response from CEO Gill McLachlan a crisis.

It’s a classic PR disaster: the implementation of a significant change in the direction of a public organisation, plain for all to see, but with absolutely no narrative, no blueprint, no leadership, no articulation of what they are attempting to achieve. In attempting to jump this chasm in two small leaps, the AFL has fallen right into it. 

As tends to happen with PR disasters, when one problem isn’t addressed it has knock-on effects elsewhere. This current crisis is clearly an extension of the controversy over the booing of Adam Goodes years earlier. Earlier this month, moments before the release of The Final Quarter, the AFL issued an unreserved apology for its inaction on the abuse Goodes faced.

“The game did not do enough to stand with him, and call it out,” the statement said. “[We pledge] to fight all forms of racism and discrimination, on and off the field”.

The AFL has a proud history of tackling racism — from the 1995 racial vilification code which preceded the national government’s 1996 legislation, to Nicky Winmar — but on Goodes it left a vacuum to be filled with raucous and toxic noise. The organisation’s silence on the way the booing took hold in lockstep with Goodes pointing out racism allowed a nonsense mythology about him to arise, that he was booed for playing for free kicks and so on.

Now, even in contrition, the AFL has left room for confusion. In the apology, McLachlan needed to point out that crowd behaviour was a priority going forward; that this needs to be addressed in order for all fans, including families and children, to be able to enjoy the game. 

Most organisations with a budget the size of the AFL’s partake in what PR practitioners call “crisis media planning”. That is, they anticipate what crises they might conceivably face in their industry and make contingency plans to address it, should the worst occur.

The AFL as an industry has roughly two reporters for every player but, despite the AFL’s enormous marketing and media wing, there appears to be no one advising them on public relations. This in spite of their relations with the public being their essential service.

The only way to deal with this crisis is not to retreat, but to outline the initial purpose of the policy, which is assuredly to improve the crowd experience. Not an ignoble aim, Gil.

These are some of the messages the AFL needs to hit if it wants to drive real change and build support for reforms in the game going forward:

  • People go to the footy to have a good time
  • It’s fine to enjoy the footy and be passionate, but just be mindful that there are kids and other people around  
  • Venting is acceptable, but threatening people is not
  • There has been a lot of agro at the footy. We don’t want to end up like Europe with designated fan seating
  • There are some people at the football that do want to stir up trouble. We want to prevent a situation from boiling over. We have a duty of care to fans
  • Let’s remember that while we love footy, it’s just a game.

What we got instead? An apology from Gil to fans who feel intimidated by security. “It hurts me that our fans are feeling intimidated at our games,” he told The Herald Sun. “I’m appalled.”

The AFL is selling a positive message; there’s no need to get on your hind legs.

David Latham is a public relations and crisis media consultant.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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