Out of Touch: The Super League and Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Increasingly, we are seeing a refreshing trend from major brands and corporations in that they actually listen to their consumers, employees and potential recruits. As a result, big-name brands are taking stands (and, in some cases, actions) on social issues like climate change and voting rights.

Chances are pretty good that these major brands have done their research and surveyed stakeholders, so they know that the best and brightest talent doesn’t want to work with a company that is on the wrong side of history when it comes to diversity, climate change, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, etc. And increasingly, investors are taking a pass on investments that have low ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) scores, mostly because they’ve seen the correlation between ESG scores and high stock prices.

Sadly, there are a number of organizations that clearly are not in tune with their constituencies. They’re out of touch with the people who give them money and support. The most obvious recent example is the European Super League, which went from a press release to dissolution in four tumultuous days last month.

It took longer for all the problems plaguing the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and its signature awards, the Golden Globes, to emerge. But both PR disasters resulted from being totally out of touch with stakeholders.

The European Super League

The announcement that many of the top European football clubs were creating a ‘Super League’ (ESL) led the late-night news April 18. Essentially, a group of club owners decided to create a version of the National Football League (NFL), in which only an elite group of teams could play. Their goal was selling broadcast rights for millions.

Allegedly, the plan was hatched to generate more revenue for the teams–many of which were hurting financially after a year of COVID-19 restrictions. It might have worked if: 1. Club owners had done more research ahead of time and 2. This bunch of rich dudes had the good sense to hire a communication team promptly, instead of leaving that detail until the day before the announcement.

What was worse is that the communicators it hired were known for their political skills, not their expertise in sports. Instead, the owners went for high-profile PR pros who helped former prime minister Theresa May and current PM Boris Johnson get elected. It didn’t help, nor did the fact that Johnson came out against the League. So, the media got a press release, but no one to answer questions.

For Americans, it may have seemed like a tempest in a very small English teapot. In Europe, though, the reaction was an unprecedented level of rage and outcry that made the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling look like silence. Worse, apparently none of the League organizers expected the response–no doubt because they hadn’t done any research on how soccer fans might react.

Disrupting Tradition

The first problem was that the move went against the core framework of European football tradition, which uses performance statistics to determine who gets to play in the elite Champions League each year. That allows teams to move up or down yearly, depending on their performance. (Just watch “Ted Lasso” and it will make sense.) The other problem was that it was seen as nothing more than a scheme to make wealthy clubs and their owners richer. Not a popular notion in COVID-19-induced recessionary times.

UEFA, the governing body of European football, threatened to ban all clubs that joined the ESL. Prime ministers and other government officials weighed in and then, to the surprise of no one except the Super League itself, fans took to the streets with an outpouring of unprecedented rage.

April 21, just a few days after the League’s announcement, the six teams that originally agreed to join dropped out. In addition, JPMorgan Chase, which pledged $4 billion to fund the scheme, apologized for its role.

A lesson to rich and powerful types who dream up crazy ideas over drinks on a weekend: Do your research. Listen to stakeholders and then hire a PR team to develop a strategy for your announcement. Once that plan is executed, go ahead and launch.

HFPA and the Golden Globes

In many ways, HFPA had the opposite problem; rather than launching something, this tiny group did things the same way for so long it had little idea what change looks like.

For years, HFPA and the Golden Globes were criticized for a lack of diversity in its membership, nominees and award winners. There were questions about members’ credentials as journalism and HFPA expenditures were scrutinized. Considered an open-secret in Hollywood circles, details of HFPA’s lack of diversity and the Globes, its money-making boondoggle, became public knowledge when the LA Times did an exposé in February 2021.

The story revealed a non-profit that takes in $27.5 million from NBC for the Globes broadcast and spends it on perks and compensation for committee members. This information and lawsuits reinforced the perception that HFPA members accept money and gifts from studios and producers in exchange for votes and nominations.

All of which was background to this year’s ceremony, which, as usual, overlooked many directors and actors of color, so much so that hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler addressed the it in their opening monologue.

“Look, a lot of flashy garbage got nominated, but that happens. That’s, like, their thing,” Poehler quipped. “But a number of Black actors and Black-led projects were overlooked,” she added.

The FHPA’s problems didn’t end with the Globes. As if to confirm everyone’s worst fears, an email to members from former FHPA president Phil Berk called Black Lives Matter (BLM) a “racist hate movement” and BLM co-founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullers, “a self-proclaimed trained Marxist.”

While HFPA continues to attempt to distance itself from its past by unveiling reforms (at our press time, May 3), ratings for the 2021 Globes’ fell to their lowest level. Speaking of distancing, NBC is trying to do that too, as it see HFPA’s poor behavior as a liability. Even Dick Clark Productions, which has produced the Globes show for years, called for immediate action. A newly hired diversity advisor exited and 100+ PR firms threatened to cut HFPA’s ties to Hollywood stars they represent unless HFPA reforms. Throughout it all, HFPA’s stream of denials and habit of hiding behind legal statement made matters worse.

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European Super League
Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F You know when BBC announcers are hyperventilating that it’s big news. News of the European Super League (ESL) ricocheted around the world in hours, generating some 43.7 million mentions on Google. Getting attention these days is pretty easy. Just combine a beloved sport, some big celebrities, lots of money and news that will infuriate everyone but those making money off whatever it is you’re announcing. What you need a good PR team for is to generate the kind of attention that might help you achieve your goals.
Effectiveness of spokespeople F Every statement from the ESL organizers dripped arrogance and greed. Nowhere was there any understanding of the implications to anyone else but them. Effective spokespeople need to look like and sound like the people they are trying to reach. Just because someone has lots of money and power doesn’t mean he/she has credibility.
Communication of key messages F The only message seemed to be ‘We’re doing this.’ If you hire a PR team the day of an announcement, crafting clear key messages is impossible. As a result, the media and your opposition will fill in the vacuum with their messages. When announcing something controversial, get your ducks in a row, make sure you understand target audiences and what gets them riled up. Also, allow enough time to figure out and TEST possible responses. If not, media coverage will be filled with whatever your enemies are saying.
Management of negative messages F Nature, and the media, abhor a vacuum. In ESL’s case, that’s what the lack of communication planning provided. So, all the ESL’s messages were about money and greed, and nothing about fans. Even with a surprise announcement, the opposition can craft messages quickly. Count on the media to write mostly about your lack of planning and preparation.
Impact on stakeholders F Fans immediately took to Twitter to fume about the announcement. Soon the media was filled with pictures of thousands of angry fans. Even after the League collapsed, fans weren’t forgiving or forgetting. Just because you back down from a bad decision or drop an unpopular initiative doesn’t mean that your stakeholders or the media will forget the incident. They will hang on to the grudge. Media will bring it up every time the leader of that initiative does anything else.
Impact on investors D JPMorgan got out in one piece, but is unlikely to be receptive to future pitches involving sports projects. If what you’re announcing is all about money and you have a big bank showering you with billions and STILL fail miserably, no one is going to be very sympathetic, including future investors.
Overall Score F Already in line for the worst PR disaster of the year–and some say of the decade. If you’re announcing something that is going to shake up an industry, do your homework and research, have data at your fingertips, start communication planning months in advance, and you’ll have a better chance of succeeding.
Hollywood Foreign Press Association
Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage D While it wasn’t necessarily front-page news, every entertainment media outlet wrote something about either the Globes’ lack of diversity and weirdness of its nominees and/or winners, the bad TV ratings or the racism of HFPA’s former president. As a result, if you Google ‘Golden Globes news,’ all you see is negative press and related coverage. Once you’re perceived as being ‘in trouble,’ the media will reinforce that message until you take dramatic action to correct whatever cultural or organizational issues caused the problem(s).
Effectiveness of spokespeople F What spokespeople? There really doesn’t seem to be a single voice or point of contact. VP Helen Hoehne was quoted most frequently, but it’s clear she didn’t have a message that meant anything or was credible enough to break through. If you don’t have a designated spokesperson to answer media queries, reporters will find the answers wherever they can. The spokesperson should be the most authentic, credible and knowledgeable person in your organization; whomever can articulate your messages best will be your strongest bet.
Communication of key messages F ‘We didn’t break the law’ and ‘We’re working on it’ seem to be HFPA’s only major messages. The more you hide behind legalese or make empty promises, the longer your negative coverage will persist. Act quickly or prepare to suffer the consequences.
Management of negative messages F If HFPA wanted to eliminate negative messaging, it would have given awards to more people of color. Instead, the group offered only platitudes. If you can’t do something about a problem immediately, at least lay out a plan of action. Whatever you do, do not offer empty promises or whatever the situational version of ‘thoughts and prayers’ is.
Impact on stakeholders F Clearly the publicity about the Globes’ lack of diverse nominees (never mind the weirdness of some of its winners) no doubt turned off a number of viewers. Then the outrage over the award winners, combined with plummeting ratings and the former president’s racist remarks kept HFPA’s scandals in the limelight for months, ensuring that future Globes telecasts are unlikely to restore ratings. The longer a crisis continues, the more chance it has to touch each and every stakeholder. The goal of any good crisis plan is to turn negative coverage into neutral or balanced stories as soon as possible. Which response strategy you chose is the strongest indicator of how long your mess will remain in the headlines. Denying responsibility, blaming victims, hiding and offering ‘No comment’ pretty much guarantee you’ll be ordering midnight takeout to your crisis war room for a very long time.
Impact on members C The HFPA clearly exists to benefit its members in every way possible. The fact that it essentially was arranging payments to members to keep them happy probably worked. As long as those members are OK reaping rewards from ethically questionable actions, they probably won’t leave. Keeping existing members, customers or employees happy can certainly be a key objective in a crisis. On the other hand, if your organization is to survive, you need to attract members, employees and customers. The longer your crisis continues, the more difficult that will be to accomplish.
Overall Score D- Any crisis that isn’t dealt with quickly is guaranteed to permanently tarnish the reputation of an organization. Add in the fact that the organization is in Hollywood and it won’t’ be going away any time soon. Situational Crisis Communication Theory suggests that your crisis response must be tailored and proportional to the type and nature of the situation. When you are dealing with a highly visible audience, in a highly visible industry you need a highly effective response. The HFPA clearly didn’t have it.