Black swans, the economic term for unexpected events, can also make an appearance in the world of communications. How does one anticipate the unexpected? Let’s take the case of the Belgian men’s national football team, the Red Devils.
The Red Devils did not just advance drastically from an athletic point of view in the past years. The National Football League –despite its somewhat dusty image – has worked diligently on professionalising the entire structure around the team. This becomes apparent as well in the communication strategy.
A few impressive campaigns propelled the hype around the team to unseen levels. The most recent high point was a video in which manager Roberto Martinez reminisced with virtual resurrections of legendary managers Guy Thys and Raymond Goethals. And on social media the Red Devils have never been more popular. They have over 880,000 followers on Twitter, a million and a half on their Facebook page, roughly 830,000 follows on Instagram and just shy of 120,000 TikTok followers. Everything is carefully managed, striking the right balance between inspirational messages, player trivia and the occasional funny video.
Then there is the team and the staff itself, who rarely fall out of character anymore when they interact with the outside world. Martinez learned the tricks of the trade in the world’s most mediatized competition, the English Premier League. And the players as well, who now act at some of the highest club levels, are familiar with the game. So much so, that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was able to voice his frustration about the (lack of?) tactical choices by the previous manager, Marc Wilmots, in two well-aimed interviews, without getting criticised about how he expressed himself.
In short, a well-oiled machine. But even a machine like that can get sand between the wheels. This happened a few times during the run-up to the European Championship.
Black swan #1: the vaccine
The first “incident” revolved around the vaccination of the players. Getting the squad in front of the line for their corona shot wasn’t easy and needed approval of the government. But when they finally got the green light, it turned out some players refused to get their shot. They didn’t do it because they were against vaccination in any kind of way, but out of fear for a strong reaction to the vaccine that would hinder their performance on the pitch.
Though that might seem like a reasonable point of view, controversy quickly ensued. The image arose of spoiled football stars that scoffed at a privilege many of their fellow countrymen would give anything for. Enter the Martinez. De team manager dealt with the matter swiftly during a single press conference where he answered all the questions. He made sure to emphasize that all the players and staff are pro-vaccine. The Federation followed up by distributing some photos of players getting their shot, and that closed the case.
Black Swan #2: Klasjet
The second black swan to land in the Devils’ training camp, was called Klasjet. This Lithuanian airliner would transport the squad to St. Petersburg for their opening game against the Russians. This led to an unexpected surge of indignation, as Klasjet turned out to pay a very low wage to the staff that was to transport the players in all luxury to Russia. Especially the labor unions expressed their dissatisfaction.
This time, Martinez and the squad stayed away from the matter. The Federation dealt with it and quickly came with an explanation. The aircraft the Red Devils usually used, from airliner Brussels Airlines, was unavailable and they wanted to avoid the traffic jams between the base camp in Tubize and Brussels Airport in Zaventem. So the choice was made to fly from Brussels South Airport in Charleroi. Brussels Airlines did their part in appeasing the controversy by accepting the explanation and emphasizing that they remained “one of the biggest fans of the Red Devils”. And that was that, again.
What do we learn from all this? The main takeaway is that you can never anticipate everything. The best you can do, is to make sure any black swan flies in the direction you prefer. A few tips for this:
- Do not avoid the matter. Ignoring it, will only make things worse to the point of being uncontrollable. No matter how good you planned ahead, if you try to stick to that plan when everyone is talking about the unexpected event, you’re making a big mistake.
- Keep it simple when addressing the matter. Make sure you communicate in an environment where you are in control. Never, ever, dive into interview mode when you haven’t had the time to prepare. Organise your own event, press conference or interview after you clearly defined your key messages. Be very clear that you will talk about the matter only at that time, providing no new elements arise, and then revert to your communications plan.
- Invest in media training. Not for learning how to avoid a sensitive issue, but how to respond to unexpected and/or difficult questions.
- Surround yourself with a diverse team. The more variety of voices when drafting your communication plan, the more you will be able to recognize potential black swans.