No balls. How Cricket Australia lost the media game

By LAURIE PATTON | 4 April 2018

The thing about cricket is one minute you’re the attack team, the next you’re in defence. Each stage of the game requires appropriate tactics. It’s pretty much the same when it comes to media management. You need to know the rules and you need a game plan.

Cricket Australia has a serious problem on its hands right now. But one of the biggest lessons it needs to learn is how to deal with a crisis, especially when it comes to handling the media.

Journalists covering this story have simply done their job. News is best described as what people want to know or need to know. You could argue that we’ve heard more about some cricketer’s private lives than we needed to but the people of Australia, and cricket fans around the world, have a right to know the facts – and this is big news however you see it.

The most important rule of media management 101 is to determine the facts, take control and get your message straight. This is where CA went wrong from the start. Apparently there was nobody of any seniority on tour with the team. They had to scramble to get people on planes and over to South Africa just to work out what the hell had just happened. Not a good start.

Coaches are, after all, pretty much just players who’ve moved on. They are there because they know how to run a training session and for their knowledge of on-field tactics. When a team loses a game, or worse still has a bad season, it’s usually put down to one of two factors. The team wasn’t good enough, or the coach wasn’t up to the task. Coaches, for obvious reasons, tend to blame the players. So the last person you need in charge when a crisis hits, as it did last week for CA, is the coach.

When it comes to determining the basic facts, this case was a clean bowl. The television pictures said it all. Cameron Bancroft was clearly guilty of ball tampering and should have been on a plane by the time stumps were called. Working out who else was involved was always going to be more difficult, but when other players ‘fessed up’ they, too, should have been sent home immediately. CA needed to move fast in order to look like it was in control and understood the gravity of things.

Sadly, as we saw four decades ago when it came to another sporting code but the same country – South Africa – it can take a while for some sports administrators to realise they are part of a wider world in which principles matter. This shameful incident will affect Australia’s international reputation and for that reason every one of us is entitled to be very cranky – not just with what Bancroft did but mostly for the inept way in which CA failed to act effectively to manage this crisis. For years to come, world travel for Australians will involve tolerating jokes, and worse, about being from a nation of cheats.

If things looked messy over in Johannesburg they positively unravelled when the players involved arrived home. Media management 101, lesson two. If you invite journalists to a news conference you can’t expect to control the questioning. Ask any politician on the back foot about that. So what was CA thinking when it forced, or allowed, players to front the media fresh off a long plane trip?

Presumably, as employees or contractors the players are bound by a formal agreement that governs their right to make public comments? If this is not the case, CA needs to get better lawyers.

Having created this crisis by their ill-advised actions Smith, Warner and Bancroft have seemingly gone rogue again in the media. Each, it seems to me, was allowed to present a version of things, along with their thoughts and feelings, designed to help themselves – or so they presumably thought. Team play? No sign of that!

When rock stars and criminals fly into Sydney airport they are routinely whisked out a back entrance and only appear in public when they and their handlers are ready. CA should have done this in order to protect its own position and the reputation of the sport. From a duty-of-care perspective, it would probably have been the right thing to do for the players too.

Sport is one of the few businesses where a group of employees makes a mistake and management isn’t ultimately held accountable. These guys were hired because they can play cricket. Not because they are necessarily great thinkers or master strategists.

Leadership is about taking a bow when everything goes well. It’s also about taking the heat when things go wrong. Right now we have no idea what the bosses at CA really think about this affair, beyond a few gasps in horror, much less what they plan to do in response. Media management 101, final lesson: get a strategy and act decisively to minimise the damage. No sign of that either.

Postscript: No sign of CA executives on the ABC’s television special broadcast last night. No balls, no idea!

(Laurie Patton is a former journalist and executive in charge of news and current affairs at the Seven television network. This article first appeared in John Menadue’s “Pearls and Irritations“.)