Walking down the corridor of the second floor of FIFA headquarters, home to senior management and the president, every single office door is shut tight. The only people around are cleaners. It’s squeaky clean. Business is conducted behind heavy, expensive doors.
My recent trip to soccer’s governing body coincided with the publication of Transparency International’s latest survey among global fans. The results highlight FIFA’s failure to regain fans' faith.
One year into Gianni Infantino’s presidency, the success of his mission "to see trust in FIFA fully restored," seems remote. Seventy percent of fans in Germany have no confidence in FIFA, 65% in the U.K., and 51% in the U.S.
Following Sepp Blatter’s banishment from football in 2015, many long-standing staffers have been clinically and quietly dismissed. Those that remain privately acknowledge an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
One new initiative is the FIFA Legend program. A tactic, already successfully employed by Infantino during his presidential campaign, using former football greats, with an aim of adding credibility to the organization’s activities while helping to restore reputation. However, more fundamental work is required to rebuild FIFA’s battered brand.
A successful strategy for reconstructing FIFA’s reputation involves a complicated and long-term process, but there are some essential and easily applied first steps.
In the 1990s, Nike initially ignored criticism of exploitative labor conditions in its Asian factories. The problem snowballed until CEO Phil Knight had the courage to address the problem head-on. Rather than deny, cover up, or spin, Knight dragged the whole issue into the light. "Nike has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse," he said. The simple act of coming clean enabled consumers to believe in his sincerity. This in turn meant that subsequent structural changes employed by the company, such as wage increases, reforms, and audits, were also trusted. Nike turned a crisis to its long-term advantage.
Around the same time, the Salt Lake City bidding scandal forced the International Olympic Committee into key organizational restructuring. Members were expelled and the operations of the IOC opened to independent audit and public scrutiny. Sharing that its president had spent more than $200,000 dollars in a luxury hotel was uncomfortable, but fundamental to rebuilding public trust.
It’s not enough to justify what has happened at FIFA with presidential platitudes such as this from Infantino in February 2017: "Wherever there are people, there will always be mistakes, the important thing is to learn from them." According to Transparency International, only 16% of people have more belief in him than Blatter.
Infantino has a great opportunity to rebuild FIFA and focus on the work carried out by many talented staff. Bringing past mistakes into the open would be the best way to ensure that the same errors are never repeated while starting to rebuild trust with the global game’s multiple stakeholders.
So far, FIFA has made some structural changes, such as the separation of organisational and administrative functions. Infantino’s FIFA 2:0 manifesto states that the organisation will follow "guiding principles of transparency, accountability, cooperation, and inclusivity."
Contemporary consumers are not dumb. The Cone Millennial Cause study found that 83% of millennials are more likely to trust a brand that demonstrates social responsibility. Seventy-nine percent are more likely to buy the brand’s products, and 74% are more likely to pay attention to the organization’s messages.
As a nonprofit organization tasked with serving the game of football, there is no place, indeed no need, for secrets. FIFA needs to demonstrate the basic qualities of empathy, authenticity, and humility.
A starting point is transparency. Let everything out, no matter how damaging. Put a stop to elitism and strive to reconnect with grassroots football and the fans that feed the sport that FIFA serves. It could also consider moving out of its lavish bunker in Zurich and into a simpler, open-plan office. Small building blocks to restoring credibility and rebuilding reputation, rather than grandiloquent gestures supported by football’s fading stars.
Ben W.S. Miller is a Barcelona-based communications specialist in the international soccer industry. Find him on Twitter at @BenWSMiller.
This story was updated on April 12 to correct the headquarters of FIFA. The organization is headquartered in Zurich, not Geneva.