X

Solving Samir Nasri's PR Crisis by the Lessons of Vardy, Ferdinand and Gray

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterFebruary 7, 2017

B/R

"I was always told, 'Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent: the Arsenal.'"

—David Rocastle, Arsenal and England


A few minutes before 1 p.m. local time on Tuesday, Dec. 27, a tweet launched from the account of Los Angeles-based sports clinic Drip Doctors. It claimed to have administered a drip to French international Samir Nasri, designed "to keep him hydrated and in top health during his busy soccer season with Sevilla."

If true, one litre of hydration fluid would have been delivered to Nasri, in direct contravention of the World Anti-Doping Agency's allowance for intravenous drips, which are limited to 50 millilitres. The Spanish anti-doping agency is investigating, and the midfielder Nasri, at Sevilla on loan from Manchester City, could face a ban of up to four years.

Whatever happens next, Nasri's currency as a professional—his sporting integrity—has been brought into question, and the already delicate couplings that link this megarich athlete with his fans loosened further. Meanwhile, his employers, City and Sevilla, risk being tarnished by association, or worse, by complicity.

In cases like Nasri's, a smart public relations strategy is vital to recovering a player's credibility and salvaging their earning potential. The best in the business charge big sums for their services and can be worth millions to their highest-profile clients.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

All PR considerations begin with Nasri's blotted copy book, dog-eared by a career spent on the wrong side of popular opinion. We recall the outburst he unleashed on a French journalist after France were knocked out of Euro 2012; his long-standing dispute with France manager Didier Deschamps and the French press, which caused him to call time on his international career in 2014, aged just 27; and the public war of words with fans at his former club Arsenal, who accused him of leaving them for City in 2011 for financial reasons.

This is a footballer written off as brattish and entitled by the media, with whom he has made little obvious effort to get along. And a man who cannot bite his tongue.

We should also reference the Twitter-hacking controversy that accompanied the Drip Doctors speculation. Nasri claims someone hijacked his account to accuse him of liaisons with a member of the clinic's staff.

Samir Nasri Official @SamNasri19

My account got hacked sorry about what happen earlier

So, how do you solve a problem like Nasri's reputation?

    

LESSON 1: GET AHEAD OF THE STORY

David Alexander has been looking after footballers for 14 years as managing director of Calacus, a public relations agency in London.

"A PR consultant is not looking to sanitise a reputation," he tells Bleacher Report. "This is not about forcing fans to engage with a false reality."

Instead, Alexander sees his job as helping a player tell their side of the story. Good PR should be a strong guiding hand, he says.

"The key is to be honest and transparent," he says. "Anything held back in the hope that it might not be discovered runs the risk of later disclosure, which is usually interpreted as the individual having something to hide and therefore makes a suspicion of guilt more likely."

Alexander cites the example of Rio Ferdinand, banned for eight months and fined £50,000 for misconduct in 2003 after failing to attend a routine drugs test at Manchester United's Carrington training ground.

LONDON - MARCH 18:  Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand arrives for a press conference after his appeal to lift his eight month ban for missing a drugs test failed on March 18, 2004 in London. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

"[Ferdinand] had forgotten, tried to go back later the same day and tested negative two days later," Alexander says. "He explained what had happened and admitted his mistake in forgetting about the test and had the full backing of his club. It did not affect his long-term reputation, and many sympathised with the punishment compared to the crime."

PR is not a "trick," Alexander says. It's a code of best practice to help footballers on the ropes tell their story. The aim is to bring wavering fans back onside.

Allegations of doping against Nasri remain unproved, just as they did with Ferdinand, which gives the Frenchman a fighting chance. Strangely, however, the approach from his camp has been to say nothing at all, leaving Nasri in a PR black hole.

Alexander worries this non-activity can be taken as culpability and only fans the speculation.

"He should, of course, have been aware of the possible negative implications of visiting Drip Doctors and the risks of using their services," he says. "He should also have consulted his agent, his club and the authorities to ensure he was permitted to do so before he attended the centre and used their services in Los Angeles. ... Suggesting he was unaware of the risks is unlikely to work as a defence here.

"Our advice to Nasri would be to make a full statement explaining what happened, including his understanding of the rules and his willingness to co-operate with the authorities. Playing dumb or staying silent just gives the impression that he has something to hide, and with the prospect of a possible four-year ban, he needs to do all he can to promote his commitment to clean sport and explain why he believes he is innocent, if indeed he does."

    

LESSON 2: USE THE MEDIA

If Nasri is guilty of contravening doping rules, should he apologise before the cameras? The PR experts advise against it.

The worry is that staged contrition reeks of cynicism and invariably loads more scorn on the client. When Tiger Woods faced an invite-only audience in 2010 while owning up to infidelity, such was the perceived emptiness of his confession that, writing in the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins was moved to remark: "The pauses and the meaningful gazes into the camera were so cringingly long you began to suspect his script read, 'lengthy pause for meaningful gaze into camera.'"

An alternative is to draw sympathy by using a member of the media to speak for you.

"A very effective way of dealing with a story is to do a spoiler," Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of London PR firm ENS, tells Bleacher Report. "Having a journalist that you trust, that you feel you can talk to and that you feel will be fair. You don't ever ask for a subject not to be covered. But rather than throwing it out to everybody and taking your chances, [a player should be] talking to a journalist they know and trust and who they feel will deal with the issue intelligently and fairly.

"What you can't do is conjure up a great relationship with a journalist 10 minutes after you've been busted for something. We're not talking about building a relationship cynically so that if ever you get busted you've got somewhere you can turn to. It's just behaving well. It's being professional within your sport. It's about maintaining relationships and about making sure you've got someone who will be prepared to give you a fair hearing when the chips are down."

Authenticity cannot be summoned at the eleventh hour to paper over cracks. There is something clinical in the exposed drug cheat putting his name to a fair-play initiative after the fact, but a public image built in solid partnership with a fair-minded press will be a robust antidote to any public relations misstep."

    

LESSON 3: OWN YOUR MISTAKES

An eerie silence from Nasri's team persists. Could speaking out through the right voice, in the right tone, reinforce his commitment to sporting integrity?

If Nasri does have trusted relationships in the media, they are quiet when he needs them most. Whether this is by choice or by request is unclear, but Nasri's side of the story, critically, is going unheard.

These are big stakes. Should allegations surrounding his relationship with Drip Doctors incur a formal charge, or earn him a playing ban, heavy financial loss is a near certainty.

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 05:  Samir Nasri of Sevilla FC looks on during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Villarreal CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 05, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images)
Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

"We have seen some inconsistencies by big brands in relation to drugs cheats in the past, such as sprinters who retain their sponsorship endorsements," Alexander says, "but generally, it tarnishes a reputation long-term."

Hopkins agrees: "If somebody has cheated through doping, they're heartbreakers. Fans put so much faith and trust in the fundamental integrity of sports people to play their sport right. A lot of off-pitch stuff is a grey area for fans, but the second you are fundamentally dishonest in your sporting endeavours, that is the 11th commandment that you cannot break.

"You can try doing a mea culpa press conference, and you can issue statements online—just put them out there and let people make of it what they will."

Alexander's advice is clear-cut: "A player must be genuinely contrite and apologise to these stakeholders and to the fans who cheer his name and underline his commitment to clean sport and co-operating with the authorities."

Steph McDonald, practice director at Ketchum Sports and Entertainment in London, breaks it down more starkly.

"Take responsibility," she says. "The public doesn't forget, but rightly or wrongly, highly popular individuals such as professional footballers are often afforded forgiveness. Depending on the nature and magnitude of the situation, demonstrating an ability to overcome and take ownership of mistakes can contribute to quicker acceptance back into the community."

    

LESSON 4: MAKE REPARATION

In July 2015, Leicester City and England striker Jamie Vardy was caught on video racially abusing a man of East Asian appearance in a casino. The video was made public by the Sun weeks later on Aug. 8, the day of the opening game of what was to be Leicester's Premier League title-winning season.

Vardy's response was consistent with McDonald's advice.

"I wholeheartedly apologise for any offence I've caused," he said in a statement issued within hours of the video being made public. "It was a regrettable error in judgement I take full responsibility for, and I accept my behaviour was not up to what's expected of me."

Leicester acknowledged the apology and said the club had begun "a process of investigation into the incident." Following an internal inquiry, Vardy's "prompt" apology was cited as the reason his contract wasn't terminated. He was fined a "substantial" amount, the funds were donated to charity, and, importantly, he agreed to take part in diversity awareness education.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City looks on during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The responses from Vardy and Leicester had all the trappings of a PR job finely executed; responsibility, ownership and a commitment to uphold expected standards in the future. After the issue died down—replaced rather helpfully by Vardy and Leicester's sensational run to the title—both parties have continued to work that cornerstone of effective public relations: sincerity.

In September, the former Fleetwood striker talked in his autobiography—syndicated by the Sun—about how his use of racist language had been the result of "ignorance," not racism, and added there was neither "malice" nor "prejudice" behind the words. Most telling of all, he talked about the education he had received whilst undergoing the diversity training the club had ordered.

"The word 'racist' is a permanent stain against my name," he said. "It's worse than a criminal record. ... It's on YouTube when my kids type in their dad's name and it comes up 'Jamie Vardy racist.'

"The tutors explained some of the context behind the word and its meaning, dating back to the Second World War. It made me feel more embarrassed."

This is where PR disaster recovery moves from crisis management into reputation rebuilding, and Vardy's case sits in stark contrast to others.

When the reputation of Burnley striker Andre Gray was tarnished by the emergence in September of a homophobic tweet from 2012, a formal apology came quickly. But Gray's reputation remains sullied.

"If the facts don't lie, don't deny," Hopkins says, citing the go-to rule for when a player is bang to rights over the factual accuracy of the allegations made against them. "If you've got a black and white case, and you need to do the decent thing, we always advise 'Come clean and shut up.' The rule in most instances is, 'Say what you're going to say, then don't feed the story.'"

Gray's position was weakened when other tweets emerged that espoused the same kind of vitriolic content. Moreover, his apology focused on mitigating circumstances and made little to no reference to the communities he had offended. In October, the Mirror reported that an FA commission, "ruled that Gray had shown no remorse between the time he published the tweets and the point at which they were uncovered"—a period of between two and four years."

Andre Gray
Andre GrayRobbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

"Understanding the audience and the context of the issue before responding is critical," McDonald says.

Vardy's team gave a reaction that was responsive to both the context and the audience. Sincere consideration was paid to why what he did was wrong and to those who had been offended by his remarks.

"A player needs to do something that puts back into the community," Hopkins says. "Not cynically as a PR stunt, but something whereby it actually shows genuine contrition."

What about a player like Gray putting his name to an anti-homophobia charity?

"You've got to be careful," she says. "If you've gone on record as being violently homophobic, Stonewall [LGBT rights organisation] will run a mile. They're not so desperate for ambassadors that they will take anyone trying to repair—and cynically trying to repair—their reputation. Far better to do it quietly, and then it will eventually come out with people. But using a charity as a means to put your reputation right is a short-term fix.

"For footballers, there is absolutely no better thing they can do than their talking on the pitch. The best answer to anything is to play brilliantly."

    

LESSON 5: CHANGE THE HEADLINES

And there lies Nasri's best hope. Helping Sevilla to end a 71-year La Liga title drought would make this the year the Manchester City outcast played a central role in toppling Spanish football royalty—rather than the year his indiscretions finally caught up with him. Stranger things have happened.

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 15: Samir Nasri of Sevilla FC celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Sevilla FC at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on October 15, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/G
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

"I know Liverpool fans who were ashamed of Luis Suarez representing the club despite his goals taking them to the brink of a first title in more than 20 years," Alexander says. "There's no doubt he's one of the best strikers in world football, and now he's at Barcelona, he's been less controversial, focusing on scoring goals and helping his team win trophies. Perhaps he's finally learnt from his misdemeanours."

There has been no salvage job better than the one done by Suarez and his representatives, who—following the player's 2014 bite on Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, the third biting incident of Suarez's career—turned one of world sport's most maligned figures into a La Liga icon in a matter of months.

But Nasri is not Suarez. He has never commanded that cult of personality, and he is not about to start. The clean-up begins here.

    

Robert O'Connor is a contributing football writer at Bleacher Report.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.