Keeper from behind seen through goal net

FIFA PR: From Big Wins to Own Goals

Football, footy, soccer, the beautiful game. Whatever you call it, one thing’s for sure – it’s the most popular sport on the planet, with 3.5 billion fans worldwide.

Such vast and far-reaching popularity gives FIFA, the game’s international governing body, a great deal of power and influence. But as with many global organisations, FIFA hasn’t always got things right.

Over the years there have been plenty of own goals by the FIFA public relations team. But there have been big wins too.

As we’re only a week away from the men’s World Cup, there’s no better time to take a deep dive into some FIFA World Cup PR strategies and a couple of examples of FIFA public relations blunders.

Time for kick-off.

So who or what is FIFA?

International football fans with flags

Founded in Paris in 1904, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the international governing association of football.

The biggest sporting governing body in the world, there are various political bodies within the organisation (FIFA Congress, FIFA Council and FIFA Administration) and six subsidiaries which oversee different regions, including the AFC (Asian Football Conference), CAF (Confederation of African Football), and Europe’s UEFA (Union of European Football Associations).

It’s also the organisation behind various international football tournaments, such as the FIFA World Cup, which takes place every four years. FIFA is also responsible for Olympic Games football, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Futsal World Cup, which is basically 5-a-side, indoor football.

FIFA PR wins and losses

Football stadium

So over the years, how has FIFA fared when it comes to PR? From international fraud to money-spinning video games, here are some of FIFA’s biggest PR wins and public relations fails.

FIFA PR Own Goal 1: Bidding farewell to fair play

Football fans in sungalsses and hats

The World Cup bidding process has gone through some transformation over the years. For example, a new rule was implemented in 2007 that meant no continent can host back-to-back World Cups, in order to give all confederations a fair shot at hosting it.

This change came as a result of South Africa losing out to Germany in the 2006 bid due to payments made by German officials to FIFA members in return for votes.

However, FIFA has continued to face fierce criticism of its bidding process, despite these changes, coming up against accusations of foul play on numerous occasions.

In fact, the last four World Cups tournaments have led to accusations of corruption and bribery against FIFA – as has the upcoming 2022 edition.

You can’t say they’re not consistent. That’s twenty years of hurt for FIFA. The upcoming 2022 tournament and its predecessor in Russia were both chosen in 2010, following a bidding process riddled with controversy.

World Cup PR: Russia 2018

Soccer stadium at night

Russia’s winning World Cup bid came at the expense of the bookies’ favourite, England. But in the lead-up to the vote, reports of collusion and corruption dominated the news.

Following the announcement, both the 2018 and 2022 bidding processes came under scrutiny with allegations of vote buying. Members of FIFA’s executive committee were accused of accepting bribes in return for their nominations.

Shady tactics and questionable ethics aside, FIFA’s decision caused an uproar, with activists and organisations protesting the decision to hold the tournament in Russia due to well-documented human rights issues, including the country’s poor treatment of the LGBTQ community.

Despite the loud voices and sizeable opposition, Russia’s World Cup went ahead.

World Cup PR: Qatar 2022

Football on pitch

On the same day that Russia won the opportunity to host the 2018 tournament, Qatar became the first Arab nation to win the right to host the event in 2022. But the country has faced the same accusations of bribery and corruption that blighted Russia. And like its fellow World Cup hosts, Qatar’s track record of human rights violations has made the lead-up to the event stormy, to say the least. Homosexuality is illegal, women’s rights are almost non-existent, and concerns have been raised around the country’s treatment of foreign workers, amid reports that 6,500 migrant workers have died building the infrastructure needed to host the tournament.

Public Relations FIFA Style

Not content with doing things by halves, the PR storm created by FIFA’s decision to award consecutive World Cups to Russia and Qatar is still very much in play.

Naturally, both nations denied all the allegations. But in 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that representatives of each country had bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights.

Unsurprisingly, this outraged the public and a number of brands such as brewery and pub chain BrewDog, who made their stance known by launching an ‘anti-world cup campaign,’ whereby they’re donating all the profits made from lager sold during the World Cup to human rights charities. In a statement on social media they said, ‘we’re proud to be launching BrewDog as an anti-sponsor of the World F*Cup. To be clear, we love football, we just don’t love corruption, abuse, and death.’

It’s not a good look for anybody involved. But it hasn’t prevented the tournament from going ahead.

PR Takeaway

Brazilian football fan in jersey watching TV

Bad decisions are made by businesses on a daily basis. It’s part of life. Mistakes happen and people react.

In most instances, the moment passes, and the penalties are light. But some decisions leave a sour taste in people’s mouths long after the fact.

In an attempt to rectify the mistakes made during the controversial bidding process, the Head of the FIFA Ethics Committee Investigative Unit launched an inquiry in 2013. The full 430-page report was published by FIFA in 2017, although the investigation was hampered by voters refusing to be interviewed, evasive bid teams, and key witnesses going AWOL.

Responding to the release of the document which found ‘no evidence’ of wrongdoing by Russia’s bid team, FIFA said: ‘For the sake of transparency, FIFA welcomes the news that this report has now been finally published.’

However, even with the publication of the report, FIFA has spent the last 12 years trying to defend their position, and they’ll continue to do so as the findings don’t sit well with many.

The PR Lesson

Black and white soccer ball

When your reputation is dragged through the mud, it’s important to:

  • Acknowledge the objections and concerns of your detractors
  • Establish your stance on the matter and assure people you’re investigating the issue
  • Gather evidence that either redeems or implicates you in wrongdoing
  • Acknowledge the findings and release a suitable statement.

It’s rare that a situation creates an ‘all is lost’ moment. If you remain transparent in your communication, chances are you’ll score the golden goal that restores your brand to its former glory.

To learn about the ups and downs of another international organisation, read: The BBC and PR: Why it’s a World Icon and How it Can Stay That Way.

FIFA PR Big Win 1: Russia Banned from 2022 World Cup

Football stadium at night

Continuing with PR related to the upcoming World Cup competition, we’re going to switch sides and look at some winning FIFA public relations. Namely, banning Russia from participating in the 2022 tournament.

As reported in The New York Times: ‘World soccer’s global governing body suspended Russia and its teams from all competitions on Monday, ejecting the country from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup only weeks before it was to play for one of Europe’s final places in this year’s tournament in Qatar.’

This was welcome news to many. Calls for Russia to be removed from the tournament had been shouted from the touchline for a long time, in protest against the war in Ukraine.

FIFA were not quick footed enough with their reaction, though. Prior to the full ban, the organisation’s stance on Russia’s involvement was that the squad must compete in neutral territory without their flag and anthem, under the name ‘Football Union of Russia.’

This did not go down well. To hammer home how they felt about Russia’s involvement in the World Cup, Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic sent a joint letter to FIFA officials stating that they refused to face Russia.

FIFA listened, and shortly after, they released a joint statement with UEFA, confirming that Russian clubs and national teams had been banned from all competitions until further notice.

While the term ‘until further notice’ doesn’t give much away about the length of the ban, it’s been confirmed that Russia will not be playing in Qatar this month.

PR Takeaway

keeper in yellow jersey saves goal

Sometimes tough, high-stake decisions need to be made. And sometimes it takes longer than you’d hope, but it’s sensible not to rush them, as impulsive decisions can result in a bigger PR crisis than originally faced.

Traditionally, FIFA has been reluctant to sanction countries on the basis of non-sport-related matters, due to the potential of legal action being brought against them.

However, calls from the International Olympic Committee for all sports federations to remove Russian athletes and teams from sporting events gave FIFA the green light to take action.

Safe in the knowledge that they had backing from high-profile organisations, FIFA ultimately made the right choice. A joint statement from FIFA and UEFA read: ‘Football is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine. Both presidents hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly so that football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people.’

FIFA PR Own Goal 2: A Net of Corruption

Brazilian football fan in stadium waves flag

In 2015, fourteen FIFA officials were arrested and charged with wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

An investigation by the United States Department of Justice found that more than £150 million in bribes and kickbacks had been paid to FIFA officials, with evidence of bribery dating back to the 1990s.

As the investigation continued, a further sixteen officials were charged, leading to other nations launching their own investigations.

The scandal led to the resignation of FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, who had led the organisation for 17 years.

He faced a criminal trial after being charged with fraud, mismanagement and misappropriation of FIFA funds. However, he was recently cleared of all charges by a Swiss court.

Needless to say, the scandal caused a huge PR headache for FIFA. The new President, Gianni Infantino, vowed to clean up the governing body following his election, although that’s is easier said than done.

PR Takeaway

Nigerian football fan

Sometimes a story is so damning that the only way to repair a reputation is to go back to the drawing board and start afresh.

Mounting a comeback after such high-level, widespread corruption is no easy task, but not impossible. It starts with owning up to past mistakes and understanding that changes need to be made. Then you have to put your money where your mouth is and take action.

With Sepp Blatter resigning and Gianni Infantino promising to clean up FIFA, they’re halfway there. Let’s see how well they do going forward.

For more examples of organisations facing PR crises, read: Crisis Management in Public Relations.

FIFA PR Big Win 2: It’s in the Game

FIFA 23 Front Cover

We’re going to end this game with one of the smartest FIFA PR strategies ever: a brand partnership with EA sports, creators of the FIFA football video games.

The relationship has lasted more than 30 years and has proven to be invaluable for both parties, both in terms of brand awareness and revenue.

The relationship is due to come to an end this year, with FIFA 23 being the final release under the licensing agreement. Nevertheless, FIFA has benefited greatly from being linked with one of the best-selling game franchises of all time.

Interestingly, in 2020, FIFA made more money from video games than from real-life football, with licensing rights accounting for $158.9m of its total $266.5m in revenue that year. Granted, the pandemic and multiple lockdowns played a big part in those figures, with live football matches and tournaments a no-go. But still.

PR Takeaway

French football fans celebrating in town sqaure

Brand partnerships can result in massive public relations wins. The most successful collaborations can help both partners reach championship levels of engagement, awareness, and profit.

The FIFA franchise is a behemoth in the world of videogames. A game-changer that scores football’s governing body over $150 million a year for lending its name to the franchise.

It’s worth noting that the reason the partnership is coming to an end is due to FIFA upping the price of licensing its name for the next four years to an eye-watering billion dollars.

They may be parting ways, but the FIFA/EA partnership has shown how effective collaboration can be for public relations.

To learn more about the benefits of brand partnerships, read: The PR Power of Brand Partnerships.

Full Time

Three Nike footballs lined up

The final whistle has sounded on our examination of FIFA public relations. Some shots have been on target and others have been epic misses.

If FIFA is to restore its reputation after the epic PR misfires of 2015, 2018 and 2022, they must look back and learn from past mistakes. With new blood heading up the organisation, hopefully FIFA can ensure history doesn’t repeat itself by making the organisation more open, transparent and community-focused.

As we know, football has the power to unite people. FIFA should lead by example. Making decisions for the good of the game rather than the pockets of the top brass.

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