Monthly Archives: November 2015

Nike episode humiliates Coe


Another day, another disaster for Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF, as he tries to blame “mangled perception” for his decision to resign as a Nike ambassador – an explanation that fails to silence his critics

It is but the latest stage in a series of largely self-inflicted blunders which have done profound damage to his personal image and reputation as a corporate operator.

This has happened because, instead of addressing the actual issues raised by those investigating malpractice in athletics, he has chosen to defend his sport by launching an aggressive – not to mention crude and clumsy – public relations campaign.

His responses to the latest crisis suggest that he is failed to learn from what has happened since August when he condemned media investigations into allegations of doping as a “declaration of war” on athletics.

Yesterday Lord Coe stepped down from his position as a Nike ambassador, finally giving in to pressure that has been building since his election in August as IAAF president.

However, instead of accepting that the concerns raised about this clash of interest were legitimate, he fell back the flimsy technical legal defence that the IAAF’s ethics committee had said he could continue in both jobs. How convenient that he can pass the buck elsewhere.

When he resigned, he insisted that his decision was not due to a clash of interests but because “the perception and the reality have become horribly mangled” – clearly blaming the media coverage.

This is a classic public relations ploy – if a rather crude one – to explain a policy U-turn. First pass on the responsibility then blame coverage rather than substance.

But it looks as if won’t convince the doubters because it sounds so implausible.

And it shows too the way that Lord Coe has lost his previously brilliant instinctive touch with the public and media.

This has happened in a period of months when, his approach to criticism about him and his sport has been driven by a public relations and crisis management strategy, which senior figures and organisations have used in recent years when under pressure – but which are now starting to look less than subtle.

Indeed the extent to which Lord Coe has been relying on public relations was revealed this week with the revelation that “UK Sport, a government-funded public body which also receives cash from Britain’s National Lottery, contributed 63,000 pounds ($95,000) to a British public relations company for its work on Coe’s campaign.”

It is not for me to comment on the legality or the morality of this – though the story can hardly be said to enhance Lord Coe’s already tarnished reputation.

But it does reinforce my suspicions about the way he has performed in recent months – both as a candidate for the Presidency and since he has taken office – to allegations about his sport and the IAAF’s role in drug testing.

I have traced the PR-driven strategy that he has adopted since August in a series of blog

I don’t know the extent to which his strategy over this period was driven by himself or Vero Communications, the agency that has been hired to help his campaign to head the IAAF.

But it is possible to assess whether it has worked.

His tactics have been so obvious that even an occasional observer like me was able to highlight the way each clunky element has been put in place since August.

While it may have given him the short-term gain of an election victory, look at what has happened to his reputation since August.

Then he decided that the best approach was to get down and dirty and accuse those who criticise the IAAF’s approach to drug cheats of making “a declaration of war on my sport.”

That remark has come back to haunt him, with the latest revelations on drug cheating in Russia making them look particularly misjudged.

Moreover, he has lost his standing as a trusted man standing above the narrow vested interests – a status he had maintained brilliantly until earlier this year.

A public relations driven approach can sound so good in theory and there may be a short term gain but there is always a heavy price to pay, particularly if it is implemented so crudely.



The real Labour party split?

Has shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s use of quotes form Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book revealed a serious ideological split between his office and that of his leader Jeremy Corbyn?

For it is impossible to be a supporter of communist China in that period and also an enthusiastic apologist for the Soviet Union – as Corbyn and his chief spin doctor Seumas Milne have shown themselves to be.

It has become conventional wisdom to see the Cold War as a struggle between capitalism and communism. But for true vitriol it is worth reading the Soviet Union’s views on China.

I have my copy of the Little Red Book (1969 vest pocket edition – second printing), which starts with the modest claim by Lin Piao that Mao is “the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our era.” I won’t rehearse the contents of the LRB here as most British papers are enthusiastically providing edited highlights.

I also have a copy of an article published by the official Soviet Novosti Press Agency published in 1970 under the wonderful headline of “Pseudo-revolutionaries Unmasked. “

This article takes a rather different view Mao’s contribution to Marxism-Leninism than that expressed by Lin Piao, accusing the Chinese leader of coming “out in unison with imperialism’s malicious anti-Soviet and anti-communist campaign.”

It continues: “Hateful to Mao Tse-Tung and his following are the successes of the USSR in the development of socialist industry, agriculture, science and technology, the steady rise of the living standard and cultural level of the masses, the strengthening of the defensive might of the Soviet Union, the tasks set by our Party for the further intensification of socialist production for the purpose of building the material and technical basis of communism and strengthening the positions of world socialism.”

The article, published in Pravda in May 1970, continues in this vein for some 29 pages, littered with comments such as “The anti-Leninist course of China’s present leadership,” accusations that Mao “disguised himself as a Marxist” and a condemnation of Maoism as “a reactionary utopian petty-bourgeois conception.”

I could go on but the message is pretty clear. You can’t support both the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao.

So are we now to see a dialectic struggle between the offices of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell? Is Seumas Milne, the ultimate apologist for the Soviet Union, now demanding the purging of McDonnell for even possessing a copy of a book that represents everything a true Marxist should hate?

Have we seen for the first time that the real struggle in the Labour party is not between the Corbynistas and the old Blairites but between the apologists for Moscow and the apologists for China?

I think we should be told.

Ian Ritchie – the worst type of sports chief executive


Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the England’s Rugby Football Union, has done what I thought was impossible; he has made me feel sympathy for the England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster who he had just removed from his position.

As Ritchie was eagerly talking about scouring the world for a new coach that he would take full responsibility for the appointment and that the new coach would report directly to him, it was left to Lancaster to say honourably that the main responsibility for England’s failure to get out of the group stage was his as head coach.

Ritchie said: “I’m the chief executive, I run the organisation, of course I feel personally about what’s gone on.”

This was a rather different line to that which he adopted in early September when the Daily Telegraph ran a story headlined: ‘Ian Ritchie to shoulder blame if England fail to win World Cup.’ A photograph of him was captioned: ‘Ian Ritchie says the buck stops with him.’

The article was reporting on a speech made by Ritchie at the Soccerex Global Convention, in which he promised to take responsibility for appointing Lancaster if the team fell short. He said : ‘I think you’re the one that takes responsibility for it, because, if you’re the chief executive, you have to look at that. I appointed Stuart. I was the one who believed he was the right person for the job.”

As one listens to what he said yesterday, one can only think: some buck – some stop.

But we should not be surprised because Ritchie’s behaviour was totally in line with that of most chief executives working in sport.

Particularly in the football Premiership, they are there taking credit for a managerial appointment; when there is success, they are all too happy to bask in reflected glory; but when things go wrong, they are ready to wash their hands of all responsibility for anything that has gone wrong.

I am not sure what the ratio of sacked premiership managers to sacked chief executives is in the Premiership.

But I doubt that there have been many occasions when chief executives have taken responsibility and fallen on their swords when managers they have appointed have not delivered.

It seems that one of the key jobs of a chief coach is to carry the can for any problems even if they are the ultimate responsibility of the chief executives.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are the ultimate modern-day whore – holding power without responsibility.

In fairness, some do have real knowledge of the sport they are involved in and some ceos have the instinct and confidence to trust those colleagues with real expertise – but this is an allegation that could never be laid at Ritchie’s door, who came to rugby after running the Lawn Tennis Association.

As Sir Clive Woodward put it succinctly in the Daily Mail: “I simply do not believe Ritchie, who does not know a ruck from a maul, is the right man to lead this appointment (of the new coach), let alone have the new man report into him in the years which follow.”

So logically, unless it is possible to find someone with a unique skill-set encompassing a knowledge of global rugby coaching and financial/business skills, the top jobs must be split into chief executive (commerce) and chief executive (rugby) who would appoint and be responsible for the coach.

It is surely possible for the board to sort out those rare occasions on which there are disputes – banks and businesses have often operated on this basis where the skills complement each other.

It may be that the review into England’s world cup performance, due out next week, reminds Ritchie of the promise he made in September.

I wouldn’t be on it or the next England coach following the advice of the review. Whoever gets the job will have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and follow their own judgement with their own staff.

And he will also know how Ritchie has behaved since England was knocked out. In what is a clear warning to the England coach’s successor of what he is likely to expect, Sir Clive condemned those who were happy to let Lancaster twist in the wind.

He wrote that “those responsible for his (Lancaster’s) appointment, and who have backed him and been happy to reap praise in the good times, should be looking in the mirror today and feeling very uncomfortable over what has happened.”

So they should – but it is unlikely that they will; when it comes to performance assessment Ritchie is likely to behave like a typical sports ceo; taking the maximum credit when things go right and minimum responsibility when they go wrong.

How Lord Coe manipulates the media


Now that the damning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on doping in Russia has been published the pressure will be on Lord Coe, the President of the IAAF to take action.

As a former PR man, presentation will be key to the way Lord Coe responds and tries to protect its interests. His remarks in the 48 hours before publication gives some clues about how the athletics authorities will mount their defence.

And we need to be very careful that Lord Coe does not use his skill in the black arts to evade and avoid the consequences of the report.

His latest remarks suggest that the IAAF is in full crisis management mode when it responds to a report which is expected to reveal details of systematic cheating, cover-ups and corruption reaching right to the top of the sport’s ruling body.

This is in stark contrast to the counter-attacking approach used by Lord Coe, who has condemned media investigations into allegations of doping as a “declaration of war”, and who was the strongest possible defender of the man he replaced, Lamine Diack, who he called the sport’s “spiritual” leader

All the signs are that from now Lord Coe will operate the crisis management tactics adopted by all those in power from health authorities to the police, local authorities and companies facing critical reports.

I have detailed this in many of my blogs – look at the categories on bureaucratic evasion, dodging accountability and the principles of deception.

So, how is his crisis management likely to work?

We have seen clear indications in the last couple of days.

First, get your retaliation in first in the hope that you can at least set the context in which the criticism will be heard. In fairness, one can hardly blame Lord Coe for doing this as Richard McLaren, one of the report’s authors was widely quoted before publication in interviews where he said that it would show a “different scale of corruption.”

Lord Coe has responded with characteristic professionalism using some effective sound bites. His comments include saying that athletics faces a “long road to redemption,” that “these are dark days for our sport,” and that he “more determined than ever to rebuild the trust in our sport.”

It is a clear attempt to reset the agenda in his favour.

Just as importantly, he has used his interviews to implement another key element of the crisis strategy – to say that the organisation has anticipated the findings of a critical report and already started to take action.

This is quite a subtle way of suggesting that the report is out of date and that the organisation is tackling the problem – and it is used by many organisations.

So we should not be surprised that Lord Coe said this at the weekend: “The day after I got elected, I started a massive review. Understandably, in the light of the allegations that have been made, that review has been accelerated.”

This brings me on to the third element – this is to protect as many individuals in senior management as possible by suggesting that problems are procedural. How many times, do we hear in the aftermath of anything from a train crash to corporate malpractice, a spokesperson getting up and saying that “we are reviewing our procedures or systems.”

And of course, no organisation will ever admit that any individual is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the procedures are correct. It is a clever way to distance management from responsibility.

Of course in this case specific allegations are being made against individuals headed by Lord Coe’s predecessor Lamine Diack. So there has to be another element to the strategy. That is to dismiss anyone accused of malpractice as a sort of rogue elephant, who is abusing the rules of a system while everyone else is behaving honourably.

Lord Coe elegantly introduced these two elements of his strategy in one answer on the BBC. He said: “The systems we have in place are robust. If these allegations are proven then clearly bad people have manipulated a system. Should we and will we have better checks and balances to ensure that bad people don’t get into these positions in the future, yes.

In hindsight, should these systems have been in place, yes probably. My task now is now is to make sure they are and my responsibility is to build a sport that is accountable, responsible and responsive.”

Laudable aims. But these words also deflect responsibility from the majority of those who have been around for the last few years in the IAAF (Lord Coe has been vice president for seven years) and blame a few “bad people” while also putting the emphasis on the need to reform processes rather than the individuals who saw no evil.

We should also remember that this is only the latest element of Lord Coe’s strategy. Only three months ago he was adopting a much more robust – though equally carefully calculated – approach.

These tactics included trying to change the terms of the debate; challenging the credentials of your critics; switching discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally; and getting your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted

Lord Coe is of course trying to save his sport but he is also trying to save himself – after all as vice president of the IAAF, he sat at Lamine Diack’s side for some seven years – and he will need to work hard to convince people that he has seen no evil and heard no evil.

The media seems to believe that IAAF is institutionally corrupt and that anyone concerned with the senior leadership of that organisation bears some responsibility.

As Martin Samuel put it in the Daily Mail: “Why Coe is compromised beyond repair.”

Lord Coe is trying to convince people that if there is any guilt, it is limited to a few individuals, most associated with it are honourable and capable of reforming the organisation.

And that whatever his failings, he has the capacity to lead the organisation in a difficult period – that though will be harder, following his initial oppostion to a ban on Russia and the rather hamfisted way he had to change tack.

And make no mistake: he will use every PR trick in the book as he tries to win the battle. It is far less clear whether that will be enough.

Lord Coe – media manipulator or leader?


Lord Coe is approaching a defining moment in his leadership of the IAAF, international athletics’ ruling body, as accusations pour out about corruption in the sport.

On the 9th November the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) publishes a report into claims of doping cover-ups, extortion and money-laundering in athletics which is said to show “a whole different scale of corruption,” even compared to Fifa.

This follows allegations that Lamine Diack, Lord Coe’s predecessor as the organisation’s president, is facing allegations that he took bribes to cover up positive doping tests; and reports in August that the IAAF did not follow up on suspicious blood tests.

He can either – as he did in August – rely on the strategy of accusing those who criticise the IAAF’s approach to drug cheats of making “a declaration of war on my sport,” and rely on a carefully constructed media campaign.

Or Lord Coe can announce that he is prepared to take on those who have done so much damage to his sport in clear unequivocal terms.

I claim no expertise in athletics – but I can smell attempts at media manipulation a mile off. And that was precisely what Lord Coe did in August as I highlighted in a couple of blogs.

So here are a few signs to look out when Lord Coe speaks next week. You can find the detail in my earlier blogs – and

But here is a summary of Lord Coe’s approach in August when he reacted furiously to reports in the Sunday Times and on the German television channel ARD that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships and the London marathon.

In words that sound rather hollow today he insisted that “the idea that my sport just sat there either covering up wrongdoing or just being incompetent could not be wider of the mark.”

And he argued that “there is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug testing that warrants this kind of attack.”

As The Times athletics correspondent Matt Dickinson noted on the 5th November, thes comments were a major error. “It was reckless talk that has already damaged Coe’s credibility. He should have declared the need for athletics to get to the bottom of such damaging allegations while protecting clean athletes.”

To me, these words also reveal much about Lord Coe’s approach. His instinct is to use classic PR defence tactics rather than address the questions raised by his critics.

As I wrote in more detail in the blogs mentioned above, these tactics include;

  1. Try and change the terms of the debate.
  2. Challenge the credentials of your critics.
  3. Switch discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally.
  4. Get your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted.

So, when Lord Coe speaks in the coming days, check to see if he is using any of these tricks.

My guess is that his tactics may be somewhat more subtle than those he used in August against the Sunday Times and ARD.

So, always remember that, even if he does admit that athletics is in crisis, Lord Coe is a PR man at heart and so is almost certain to see presentation as part of the solution.

This means we have to ask whether the cancellation of the sport’s annual awards ceremony is a PR gesture or an indication of a new approach to corruption.

That shows just how far he has to go  before he can appear credible again.

So I urge you: Don’t just listen to the words he says: listen to how he says them.