FIFA World Cup reputation assignment too hot for two PR firms

Other agencies are weighing the risks of representing the embattled world soccer body, as well as the controversial host nations: Russia and Qatar.

An image of the stadium planned for Nizhny Novgorod, one of 11 host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
An image of the stadium planned for Nizhny Novgorod, one of 11 host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Two of the five top-tier global PR agencies that FIFA invited to pitch for an assignment burnishing the reputation of the next two World Cups have pulled themselves out of contention, PRWeek has learned.

The firms have not divulged their reasons for doing so, but industry insiders say the winning shop could face reputational risks to its own business.

The stakeholder relations and crisis management brief is focused on the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where its hostilities with Ukraine and anti-gay stance make it a tough sell to corporate sponsors and soccer fans.

Part of the work would also focus on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which has come under fire for reportedly dreadful conditions for the workers building stadiums for the event. That’s not to mention the fact that many players believe Qatar is just too hot to host the outdoor tournament.

One source described the brief to PRWeek as "mission impossible."

To complicate matters, Russia and Qatar have been accused of buying votes to win their hosting bids. On Thursday, FIFA reopened its review into the allegations, only a week after clearing the two countries of collusion and corruption. After its initial report, lead investigator Michael Garcia complained that his findings were erroneously represented by FIFA.

Soccer’s international governing body had invited Bell Pottinger, Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and Burson-Marsteller to pitch for the business. However, Edelman is "not participating," says Michael Bush, SVP of global marketing and communications at the firm.

David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger, says his London-based agency will also not participate.

"There was an initial discussion, but it has not gone any further," he told PRWeek in an e-mail. "We aren’t talking with FIFA anymore."

Executives from Weber, H+K, and Burson declined to confirm or deny their participation.

Delia Fischer, head of media at FIFA, declined to comment on the specifics of the brief.

"FIFA works on a regular basis with agencies across a broad spectrum of communications briefs related to the FIFA World Cup," she said, in a statement. "This has been standard practice for the previous four-year cycle and continues for the new cycle."

Risk vs. reward
Given FIFA’s reputational challenges and those of the two host countries, how much of a risk would it be for a PR agency to take on this account? PRWeek spoke to a half-dozen PR pros – including some with insider knowledge of the account – who were divided in their opinions.

Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown, contends that "an agency that takes on FIFA risks violating their own core principles as company. I would be more worried about that rather than thinking about whether or not you’d have a credible shot of doing great work for them."

She notes that FIFA during the tenure of president Sepp Blatter has consistently shown a lack of credibility and ethics, and the assignment would call for the wining firm to rally behind "host countries with ongoing human rights violations."

In addition to Russia’s policies on LGBT individuals, hundreds of migrant Nepali workers have died during the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, according to various reports including a damning ESPN documentary. It also has a poor record on women’s rights and gay rights.

"I see this as a larger issue in terms of global agency holding companies and their shareholders making a stand on values," says McCown.

Another source notes that the agency also risks becoming a target of the media, given how hard the British press has gone after FIFA.

"UK journalists get syndicated absolutely everywhere; to say the British tabloid press is antagonist doesn’t even begin to describe how they feel about the state of the organization," says one source. "Whoever takes them on will be dealing with a rabid pack."

Asked why any agency would take on the work, he replied: "money."

Another high-ranking PR executive notes that an agency has to decide whether it can help cultivate change in how FIFA communicates and possibly even how it operates.

"As an agency, you have to ask yourself: is this the belief or behavior you want to be aligned with professionally? What you may find is sometimes the answer is yes, because you think it is a belief that can be changed," the source says. "Or you can say, ‘I don’t agree with this, I think it is morally or ethically wrong. I am not going to be a part of this because it will reflect poorly on me.’"

"I think whoever takes it on will have to wrestle with those basic questions of propriety, ethics, legality, and morality," says the source.

Those familiar with the brief say the winning firm will be handicapped in doing an effective job, in part because the Russian government will have direct input into FIFA’s 2018 World Cup messaging. Last year, Ketchum got the attention of US mainstream media outlets when it placed an op-ed in The New York Times penned by Russian President Vladimir Putin that warned against US military action against Syria.

Yet others are more optimistic, noting that some factors could work to the advantage of the agency that takes on the brief. One is the low expectations the industry has for any firm to affect change at FIFA.

"Expectation management is such a critical part of any new campaign – not only what the client expects from you, but what other potential clients and people in the industry expect you might be able to accomplish," says one source. "There’s significant awareness around just how badly this might go wrong and how sticky this situation might possibly get. That actually mitigates some of the potential downside to the firm that ultimately wins this work."

Another source notes that the World Cup in Russia is more than three years away, and the one in Qatar more than six years in the future, and the geopolitical climate could change for the better in that time. In a best-case scenario, the agency could ultimately be seen as helping create positive change within FIFA and credited for its handling of the events in Russia and Qatar.

"People look at the strategic issues through the lens of what is happening right now on CNN. They don’t realize that these are issues that play out over time and can change relatively quickly," says the executive. "Perception of the issues can also change significantly. You have to take a long term view of this."

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