Michael Pavitt: WTF and the growing importance of image

Alastair Campbell spoke recently about the importance of organisations "controlling the narrative" ©Getty Images

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The move by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) to occasionally rebrand themselves as World Taekwondo has garnered interest from outside the sporting world, judging by a brief search on the internet this morning.

 

Of course the wider public have not focused on the part of their decision-making which centres on marketing purposes. The truth of the matter is that the general population will not see the change as part of the governing body implementing their five-point development road-map, which also includes innovating taekwondo events and raising the profile and awareness of the sport.

Instead, the focus has been on an organisation seeking to avoid the association of their acronym “WTF” with the colloquial "What The F***" slang, denoting surprise or disgust, which has been used more and more commonly on the internet and particularly on social media.

Naturally it seems like a smart move from World Taekwondo from a branding perspective as a WTF Grand Prix or WTF World Championships would no doubt garner sniggers from certain quarters. It could be quite difficult for sponsors to wish to lend their brand and reputation to an event with WTF plastered across it.

Despite the negatives of the acronym, it is worth pointing out that once you have been told that it stood for the World Taekwondo Federation, you certainly do not forget it. With so many Federations around, the acronym does make the Federation more memorable. Maybe the old adage, there is no such thing as bad publicity, could apply.

The search for instant public recognition could arguably be behind the changes of name by the International Sailing Federation, which became World Sailing, and the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles which became United World Wrestling.

Earlier this year the International Cycling Union (UCI) also launched a re-brand, including changes to its logo and graphics, which was claimed to have modernised the governing body's image which had been dented by its handling of doping cases in the sport.

While these changes are subtle, it does seem to show that governing bodies are paying a greater awareness to what the public image of them is. Avoiding jokes at the expense of your acronym or presenting your governing body as having made a clean break with the past seem logical decisions.

The image trotted out to the public by organisations is that they are modernising and reforming, but whether this is actually the case is another story entirely.

As pointed out by my colleague Nick Butler a few months back, maintaining the perception that change is taking place is seemingly becoming more and more important.

He reflected that actions by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had been “PR savvy, designed to signify progress, although if you look beyond the spin and press releases, few concrete changes have actually occurred”

At an event I attended recently in London, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and strategist Alastair Campbell was down as a speaker.

The 58-year-old, who served in the post between 1997 and 2003, reflected on the importance of organisations and businesses being able to “control the narrative” in maintaining their public image. An example used was the motoring giant Volkswagen’s proactive response to their emissions scandal earlier this year.

He argued that while the German company would likely suffer considerably in the short-term following the crisis, that their response would help their reputation be restored much quicker than that of oil and gas company BP, who are still suffering from the fallout of their botched attempts to deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

His sentiments came back to me yesterday as I trawled through the latest 17 athletes who had been provisionally suspended for doping by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), following their World Championships last month in Houston.

The mass reveal of the names, which took the overall tally to 24, was rightly met with shock. Not least due to Russia’s Aleksei Lovchev testing positive having been crowned as the over 105 kilograms world champion with a world record total of 475kg.

Undoubtedly the number of cases are a source of great concern. Not least because five of the six Azerbaijan weightlifters to have tested positive returned from previous bans earlier this year, suggesting lessons have yet to be learnt or that education of the risks of doping are failing to hit home.

Despite the clear setback and a dent in sport’s reputation, the IWF arguably could be seen, to use Campbell’s phrase, to be in “control of the narrative”. The Federation have already pointed to the cases as “clear proof how effective the anti-doping fight in our sport is” and are stating that “the enormous work behind these findings must also be highlighted”.

The proactive response can also be seen by their move to ban Bulgaria from Rio 2016, subject to an appeal by the country at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after eight male and three female weightlifters tested positive for stanozolol at a training camp for the European Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia. The governing body can certainly make a case to have made efforts to catch cheats and hand out strong punishments, which might help to rebuild their reputation faster.

By contrast, both FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) responses to the scandals in their respective organisations have appeared to have been led by pressure from outside the governing bodies, be it public or media.

Remaining in control of the story in the IAAF’s case has become the story this week, following the French newspaper Le Monde publishing a series of emails from Nick Davies, the IAAF's deputy secretary general, which included a suggestion to not name Russian athletes who had failed drugs tests in the run-up the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

With Davies, who has now temporarily stood down, reportedly suggesting to hire CSM, the sports marketing firm chaired by IAAF President Sebastian Coe, to run a public relations campaign to deal with negative stories, the governing body now have the image of hindering the clean-up of doping in the sport instead of leading the battle.

While both the IWF and IAAF have doping problems to tackle and both have banned a Federation - the IAAF suspending Russia - their images couldn’t be further apart.

And it appears that in the 21st Century, image matters.

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