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What We Can Learn From World Cup PR Disasters

By June 13, 2018July 22nd, 2020Public Relations

Every four years people around the world get together to witness ‘The World Game’ where top footballing (or soccer as we call it here in the U.S.) nations compete for the ultimate prize. These nations put their countries and top footballers on display for the world to see. However, like any live event, no matter how much you prepare, game strategy on or off the field doesn’t always go according to plan. These epic World Cup fails show us what NOT to do when it comes to best PR practices and how to use  crisis communication strategies to quickly recover.

The key to crisis management is to have a plan ahead of time, respond immediately, take responsibility, and ensure everyone in the organization knows his or her role. Being proactive rather than reactive in a crisis enables your team to be prepared for any PR catastrophe that comes your way. We’ve put together some of the most notorious examples of World Cup PR disasters below and takeaways for PR pros on how crisis communications strategies can save the day.


Coach Scolari of Brazil accepts responsibility for defeat.

Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in 2014. The head coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, accepted responsibility for this loss, saying it was “the worst day of my life.” This had an incredibly large impact on the Brazilian population’s morale since football’s a way of life in Brazil and anything short of a World Cup victory can cause a national outcry. To make matters worse, Brazil was also going through an economic crisis at the time, and the combination was devastating to the Brazilian people. The coach stepping to the podium to courageously accept responsibility for the team’s defeat in public showed not only his strength of character, but also helped restore a sense of pride among the Brazilian people with a hope for a better future in football.

Takeaway: Coach Scolari demonstrated leadership by taking ownership for the loss, offering a quick and concise response, and tried to win back the public by asking for forgiveness and offering a sincere apology. He said, “I’d ask the people to excuse us for this mistake. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to the final.”

If there’s a PR disaster, the best option as the chief communicator is to take accountability, be quick to respond, and communicate a clear framework going forward on how to resolve the problem. This approach is far more effective than playing the blame game. It will quickly help restore your image, build trust with your audience, and provide a sense of hope for a better future.

Graham Poll Three Yellow Card Incident.

Back in 2006, referee Graham Poll, touted as the world’s best referee at the time, was suddenly sent packing from the World Cup in Germany. However, the English referee paid a high price for his three yellow-card blunder in the Australia versus Croatia game in which he booked Croatian defender Josip Simunic three times, instead of the required two yellow card rule to be sent off.  What followed was a scolding social media campaign against Poll and harsh criticism from the football world. A statement from FIFA referees committee president Angel Llona attempted to defend Poll, but also acknowledged that he made a mistake: “Graham Poll is an exceptional referee and a great sportsman, who will be able to overcome the situation thanks to his strong personality and love of the game.” The referee eventually made waves when he released his book in 2007. The book helped rebuild his PR image in amazing ways by providing insight into his refereeing style and an emotional account of what brought about this horrible blunder, including lessons for aspiring referees to avoid such mishaps in the future.

Takeaway: After the dust settles, a lot of times a positive statement to the press can save face with your audience. Admitting flaws in decision-making or any mistake for that matter is essential to rebuilding your brand after a PR disaster.

South Africa builders’ fatalities and mistreatment.

In 2010, South Africa’s construction industry was inherently known for poor construction laws that resulted in deaths and permanent disabilities to contractors. Around the World Cup there were several accidents while the country was building the stadium and mistreatment of the workers that shed a negative light on the nation. But the country overcame this challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Plan, new safety laws and even granting the workers and their families tickets to the games, which highlighted its commitment to its citizens and workers.

Takeaway: Rebuilding your company’s image can be tough, especially if it’s regarding poor treatment of staff. Publicizing new regulations, reviewing company culture and workers compensation or rebranding can help restore your company’s image in a major way.

Qatar bribes.

Just this past year, FIFA vice president Sepp Blatter took at least one million dollars in bribes to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. This major scandal resulted in FBI raids, a complete restructuring of the FIFA leadership team, a comic stunt where a British comedian threw money at Sepp Blatter live on stage, and a court case. This case, which is still in the middle of a trial, was branded “the World Cup of fraud.” This infuriated many nations jockeying to become a World Cup destination by spending millions of dollars hosting FIFA delegates. This insurmountable blunder is costing Blatter his international reputation and is casting a dark cloud over FIFA’s reputation as a whole.

Takeaway: No matter how tempting it may seem for your company to take the “easy way out” in a given situation, it’s always best to do it right. FIFA is responsible for running world football and the scandal tarnished its reputation. Just a year later Blatter was kicked out of FIFA and Issa Hayatou replaced him as FIFA president. Like the Uber scandals, sometimes replacing leadership is the only route to turning your company around.

With these PR disaster examples, it’s easy to see what not to do when running your company’s PR department. Remember, even if you make a mistake, there’s always a way to come back from it, as long as you don’t get caught in a lie or duck responsibility. By being prepared for a crisis rather than reacting, you can guarantee that you can recover from any type of PR disaster!

Until next time!
Critical Mention
Jolie Shapiro Picture
Jolie Shapiro

Passionate about all things communications, Jolie found her dream job as a copywriter with Critical Mention, where she’s continuing her passion for writing and editing. With a background working for high-profile clients in the financial, hospitality and technology industries, she’s excited to bring her experience to Critical Mention. When she’s not writing you can find her at music festivals, hiking or snowboarding.


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