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Review: How good was Essendon's Crisis Management?

By James Fitzpatrick


On Monday 11 January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) shocked the AFL community when it found 34 past and present Essendon players guilty of doping and sanctioned them, ‘with a period of ineligibility of two years, commencing on 31 March 2015, with credit given for any individual period of ineligibility already served. Thus, most of the suspensions will come to an end in November 2016’ (read the full Arbitral Award here).

This decision overturned the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal’s ruling from March 2015 and sparked debate on the responsibility and accountability of players and their clubs respectively.

The decision is a huge blow to one of the game’s oldest clubs, which may take years to recover. The club’s players, who now face a significant obstacle in their future football careers, are also considering legal action for a breach of duty of care.

In Essendon’s darkest day, how did they respond? How good was their crisis management strategy?

In short: it was a whole lot better than it has been for the past three years.

Since the Essendon doping scandal first came to light in 2012, there has been finger pointing, wheeling and dealing, back-flipping, and mixed messages from almost all parties involved. The players are perhaps one exception to these behaviours – their trusting acceptance of the regime is arguably the criticism that ultimately brought them down.

In stark contrast to prior approaches, Essendon’s recently appointed Chairman Lindsay Tanner (former member of the First Rudd Ministry), responded immediately to Tuesday’s bombshell with confidence and strategy that had a distinct crisis management textbook flavour.

Tanner used his Tuesday morning media conference to finally set a stage for Essendon to rebuild. It was a response without finger-pointing, criticising, or ‘bullet-dodging’, instead featuring the following key message points:

  • He acknowledged CAS’s authority and accepted its decision

  • He acknowledged Essendon’s systemic failing in its duty to its players and to the league

  • On behalf of the club, he took responsibility for the disaster that has ultimately unfolded

  • On behalf of the club, he apologised to the Essendon players for failing them, and their families and friends

  • He reminded the public of the club’s long history

  • He emphasised the club’s determination to support and guide its players, members and partners through a dark period

  • He promised better times ahead saying, ‘We [Essendon] will prevail, we will survive, and we will succeed’

(see Essendon Chairman Linsday Tanner’s statements in full here).

What’s Next?

Tanner’s defiant words in taking responsibility and insisting the club’s flame still burns (and that it will continue to do so), are a step in the right direction. But, the real challenge ahead is how the club responds and rebuilds (with more than just words) in the coming 12 months and beyond.

Essendon needs to regain the trust of its stakeholders, particularly supporters and partners, and to reinvent its position as one of the AFL’s most prominent clubs.

To do this, Essendon will need to develop and enact a carefully planned strategy, covering and integrating all components of the business. This should enable the club to:

  • demonstrate it has implemented the ‘significant reforms and governance measures’ Tanner promised in his media conference

  • provide its key stakeholders with a suitable level of assurance that this type of failure and breach will never happen again.

The club should, in my own opinion, do whatever it can to stand by and support its players for the journey – even if players file law suits.

If Essendon is to survive, it will need to convince people to buy into its journey back to the top: the players, the staff, the supporters, the regulators, and the wider AFL community.

This is a treacherous mountain of a task, and the points above merely scratch the surface of what’s ahead. But, achieving a once-again-prosperous Essendon Football Club is not beyond the power of an innovative, thorough, all-encompassing and well-enacted crisis management plan.

In six months, I’ll review Essendon’s situation and analyse how the club has progressed in its crisis management strategy. Click here to sign up to our monthly Crisis Review so you don’t miss the update on this long-running saga.

On a side-note:

With one of Victoria’s premier clubs fielding a ‘B-Side’ for an entire season, a number of other parties will also be reaching for their crisis management plans and bracing for the ripple effect, including:

  • Peak body – the AFL (brand and reputation)

  • Venues – Etihad Stadium/MCG (potential significant drop in crowd numbers)

  • Broadcasters – Channel Seven and Foxtel (potential significant drop in TV audience)

  • Partners/sponsors – KIA and Fujitsu (brand and reputation),

to name a few…

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Thanks to Astrid Leslie for her help in writing this article. Got a question? You can contact me here.

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