Eddie McGuire’s response to Collingwood’s racism report is a lesson in how not to act in a crisis

Eddie McGuire Collingwood

Former Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba and club president Eddie McGuire. Source: AAP.

As Collingwood Football Club grapples with the fallout from a damning report highlighting systemic racism within the organisation, leaders have been given a free showcase of precisely how not to approach public relations and comms in times of reputational crisis.

Club president Eddie McGuire — who previously announced he would be stepping down at the end of 2021 — responded to the leaked report on February 1, claiming it was “a historic and proud day” for the organisation.

That attracted derision and outrage, and left many commentators stunned. When your organisation is found to be a hotbed of systemic racism, a ‘proud day’ it is not.

Former Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba, who shone a light on racism at Collingwood, making allegations that were a driving force in the commissioning of the report, reportedly called the club’s response “a clear case of cowardice”.

McGuire has since conceded that he didn’t choose his words wisely, but the damage is well and truly done.

Crisis response 101

Speaking to SmartCompany, Jo Scard, founder of communications agency Fifty Acres and advisor on crisis communications, notes it’s always impossible to predict exactly what form a crisis will take.

In this particular situation, however, the leaders of Collingwood Football Club could have taken a pretty good guess.

This was a report commissioned by the club, that they had access to before it was leaked.

Even so, McGuire missed “key crisis response 101”, Scard says — that is, acknowledging the problem and explaining how you’re going to remedy it.

“If you don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room, how do you ever fit in around the elephant?

“It gets bigger and bigger,” she notes.

Felicia Coco, co-founder and director of PR firm LaunchLink Communications, notes these issues need to be tackled through consultation with the people impacted.

“In situations like this, the best approach is to listen, accept responsibility and acknowledge the problem as it is,” she says.

While it seems McGuire attempted to do this, inappropriate delivery means his response came across as insensitive and wholly tone-deaf, especially coming from a high-profile white Australian in a position of power.

“You can’t put a positive spin on racism or minimise what has occurred,” she says.

“It just adds insult to injury, especially when the spokesperson does not share the same cultural experience.”

Coco agrees the only acceptable response here would have been to take ownership of the problem and outline a commitment to addressing it.

That’s all while recognising the sheer gravity of the issue, and the pain and generational trauma that’s associated with racism in Australia.

Then, when a commitment is made, an organisation must act on it. That means working with affected people to draw up a reconciliation strategy; investment in diversity and inclusion programs and training; and long-term projects that have tangible benefits for marginalised communities.

“This response can’t be a fluffy band-aid solution and it requires consulting individuals of diverse backgrounds, communities and leaders,” Coco explains.

Anything less carries a considerable risk of further reputational damage for the organisation.

“If executed properly and sincerely, I think there is potential to regain the trust and respect of fans and the broader public, but this won’t happen overnight and it will take a large investment of time and resources from all parties involved,” says Coco.

Lessons going unlearned

This begs the question as to whether Collingwood can repair this damage with McGuire at the helm.

This is someone who is known for putting his foot in his mouth, and failing to think before he speaks. As Scard notes, that’s not the hallmark of a great leader.

“Those in positions of influence and power need to do better than that,” she says.

Business leaders and other people in positions of power are very much capable of changing their behaviours, and listening and learning from the debates that “move us as a society”, Scard notes.

Whether McGuire has proven he himself can do so is another matter entirely.

As Collingwood strives to recover from this crisis, “they need to ask themselves if he is the right leader to manage the issues brought to light in that report”.

There’s also a question as to whether the organisation can even begin to tackle systemic racism with him remaining in place, she notes.

If McGuire and the club fail to show stronger leadership, they will fail to attract diverse staff and players, which will ultimately be of detriment to its performance, while also serving to entrench the racism they’re apparently trying to oust.

Regaining public trust and respect will not be a quick fix, Coco notes.

The very fact that McGuire has a long history of inappropriate behaviour means people are seeing history repeating itself, she says.

“The management of this situation can be perceived as not having learned crucial lessons from the past.”

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