Rarely has a crisis with the potential to seriously damage a brand unfolded so rapidly, in front of so many people, and been dealt with so proactively and expeditiously.  

And rarely has all that fine work unravelled so spectacularly a few days later.

It was early in the final quarter of the Australian Football League match between the country’s most popular club side, Collingwood and the reigning premiers, Sydney. The evening of Friday 24 May.

The opening match of the AFL’s much lauded Indigenous Round, which celebrates the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to Australia’s most popular winter sport.

The game was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 65,306 spectators; the national TV audience was 1.06 million.

The game had added potency. It marked 20 years since an incident at Collingwood’s old suburban ground, Victoria Park, celebrated as the watershed moment when racism in the AFL was exposed in all its ugliness.

In 1993, at the conclusion of a match at Victoria Park, Indigenous St Kilda player Nicky Winmar turned to the Collingwood cheer-squad, lifted his jumper and pointed at his skin. A number among the Collingwood faithful had earlier taunted him with racist comments about petrol sniffing.

A photograph of Winmar staring down the ’pies fans is an iconic image in the history of Australian sport, and featured heavily in media reports ahead of the 24 May clash.

It was against this historic backdrop that a teenage girl, sitting in the front row of the MCG’s Southern Stand, shouted at Sydney star and Indigenous player, Adam Goodes, who was no more than 10 metres away.

Goodes immediately pointed at the girl and asked security guards to remove her from the ground. TV cameras showed a clearly distressed Goodes leaving the playing field and entering the change rooms unable to complete an historic win for the Swans, its first over Collingwood at the MCG since 2000.

The girl was seen being marched to the back of the stands by officials.

Twitter and Facebook were instantly ablaze with condemnation, anger and disbelief. No one knew what the girl had said but from  Goodes’ reaction it was obvious. Not again.

Collingwood had a crisis.

Watching on from the stands was Collingwood president and high-profile media figure Eddie McGuire, a man credited with modernising the club.

He acted swiftly, dealing with the crisis with aplomb.

As soon as the game finished he rushed to the Sydney rooms, sought out Goodes and apologised. All was captured on live TV.

McGuire then held a press conference, condemning the girl’s remarks as “despicable”.

“Everyone knows the rules at Collingwood: if you racially vilify anybody, it's zero tolerance; you're out,” McGuire said.

It was a stark contrast to the club president in 1993, Allan McAlister, who was quoted as saying Aboriginal people were welcome at the club provided “they behave like white people”.

McGuire’s actions were universally praised. A man widely criticised for having too much influence over sport and media – “Eddie Everywhere” – was momentarily a bit of a hero.

Goodes’ was also magnanimous, accepting the 13-year-old girl’s apology (she’d called him an “ape”), emphasising she was too young to know better and was likely parroting what she had heard others, older than her, say.

For PR tragics, this was the crisis management gold standard.  An ugly incident had been turned to, if not a positive, than at least a vehicle to remind all of us that racism has no place in our society.

Then it all went pear shaped.

Five days later, McGuire suggested on his breakfast radio program that promoters of the new King Kong musical in Melbourne invite Goodes as a special guest.

"You can see them doing that, can't you?,” McGuire said

“Goodesy. You know, the big, not the ape thing the whole thing, I'm just saying the pumping him up and mucking around and that sort of stuff.”

Collingwood and McGuire were in crisis. Again. Except this time, it was handled badly.

McGuire did what you would expect anyone with a modicum of a conscience to do.

He apologised to Goodes by phone and publicly. He was clearly mortified at what had passed his lips.

But he ham-fistedly claimed "I wasn't racially vilifying anyone this morning ... I was thinking the exact opposite. After I realised my mistake I immediately retracted and apologised.

He blamed exhaustion and a slip of the tongue. But as many pointed out tongue slips don’t involve whole sentences.

He offered to step down as club president if the Board asked him to.

And there lies the rub. Instead of taking responsibility for his own actions, implementing his “zero tolerance” rule and stepping down, even temporarily while his remarks were investigated by the AFL, he wrote himself a get-out-of-jail card.

McGuire is an immensely powerful figure at Collingwood. Possibly the most powerful president in the Club’s history.

The Board was never going to stand him down unless he told them to.

And so we were left with the perception that McGuire had one set of rules for himself and one for others.

He should have stood down on the spot. Before even holding his press conference to apologise for his on-air gaffe, he should have released a statement saying he would step down pending the AFL’s investigation.

At the press conference he should have been knowledgeable enough to admit he had vilified Goodes and that he needed to take a long hard look into his soul to figure out why he said what he said.

McGuire has a wonderful record helping Indigenous Australians. If he’d thrown himself at the mercy of the public, not tried to excuse his conduct and had others defend his record fighting racism his reputation would have been largely unaffected. We all make mistakes.

But he didn’t. Much of the good work from the Friday night was undone. 

*Benjamin Haslem is a member of the Collingwood Football Club.      

Where Eddie McGuire got it right on the night – a brief guide to crisis communications[1]

1.   Candour

The outward recognition through the prompt,  spoken public acknowledgement that a problem exists.

McGuire spoke to media at the MCG immediately but preceded this by going straight to the Sydney dressing rooms, knowing this would be captured on live TV.

2.   Explanation (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem causing error was):

  • Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviours that led to the situation.
  • Talk about what was learned from the situation and how it will influence the organization's future behaviour.
  • Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out, or until no public interest remains.

McGuire obviously couldn’t explain the girl’s behaviour but could emphasise that Collingwood had a zero tolerance to such incidents, thereby taking responsibility for tackling racism amongst its own players, staff and supporters.

3.   Declaration:

A public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken conclusively address the issues and resolve the situation.

This commitment was demonstrated simply by McGuire seeking out Goodes and then apologising to him in person and later at the media conference. Then declaring: "We'll go and tell her parents or whatever the case may be, we're not having this rubbish'.'

4.   Contrition:

The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, even embarrassment. Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident, or negligence.

McGuire told reporters after the game: "I wanted to apologise to Adam on behalf of football in general and ask that he would accept our apologies.

"I said 'we won't stand for this, we have a zero tolerance'. He's been such a wonderful leader in this great week in our football code.

5.   Consultation:

Promptly ask for help and counsel from victims, government, and the community of origin - even from opponents.

Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions, more acceptable behaviors, and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from occurring.

Speaking after the game, McGuire said:

"I said that we would find out what the hell has gone on,'' he said.

"They're saying it was a 14-year-old girl or whatever, I don't care. We'll go and tell her parents or whatever the case may be, we're not having this rubbish.''

6.   Commitment:

See 5 above.

7.   Restitution:

Find a way to quickly pay the price.

Adverse situations remediated quickly cost far less and are controversial for much shorter periods of time.

McGuire sought out Goodes as soon as the match concluded.

[1] James E. Lukaszewski (1999) Seven Dimensions Of Crisis Communication Management: A Strategic Analysis And Planning Mode, Ragan's Communications Journal, January/February 1999