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.


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