Evragate vs Bitegate: How Liverpool got their PR act together

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This Is Anfield Co-editor Max Munton looks at the differences in Liverpool Football Club’s reactions in Luis Suarez’s two most controversial incidents in English football.

Luis Suarez

One of the most damning criticisms to come out of the Luis Suarez –Patrice Evra racism row of 2011 was of Liverpool Football Club’s shambles of a reaction in the public domain. It was an cascade of embarrassing PR stunts that the weasly tabloid journalists of the country seized upon with every opportunity.

Although Sunday’s incident involving Suarez biting the arm of Branislav Ivanovic during Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Anfield is an incident of a different kind of nature to the one alleged during the racism row, the signs that Liverpool have improved their immediate handling of such matters is hard to miss.

A fierce regime to defend the former Ajax forward through statements and supportive t-shirt bright ideas were a shambles and caused a political and commercial headache for Liverpool during the Evra row, with club sponsors Standard Chartered stepping in looking concerned.

This time round, Liverpool have not only acted at a good pace and in a professional manner by issuing statements and answering questions in a calm, empathic way, they have distanced themselves from both the incident and Suarez’s behaviour. So much so that they have earned the praise of Andy Hunter of The Guardian:

Liverpool have reacted with impressive swiftness and seriousness to Suárez’s latest indiscretion.

There are similarities in both incidents. On neither occasion did the referee seemingly deal with the explicit allegations at the time, enabling the Football Association to exercise retrospective action. Furthermore, video evidence was used and circulated by the press and social media to bring attention to the incidents – more so during Bitegate.

There are also big differences between the two cases though. During Evragate, Suarez was adamant that there had been a cultural confusion as regards his use of the word ‘negrito’ towards the Manchester Utd skipper. This is something Suarez still feels strongly about today.

Whilst the video evidence from Sky’s multi-angle, high-definition, Super Sunday game leave little room to deny wrongdoing, or even defend Suarez’s actions, the Football Association’s verdict that Suarez had used a racist term towards Evra was based on the “probability” that it did happen based on statements from players and officials.

Liverpool’s reaction to Evragate was described in an open letter signed by local and national black leaders, as well as anti-racism organisations as:

“LFC actions, in vehemently rejecting the findings of the FA inquiry, their public displays of support for a player found guilty of racist abuse and his subsequent refusal to shake the hand of Evra at a recent game is completely unacceptable. These actions we believe could be considered as inciting racial intolerance.

When the Football Association hit Suarez with a £40,000 fine and eight match ban on 20th December 2011, Liverpool refused to back down from their position in defending Suarez. A statement read that the club were “surprised and disappointed” with the “extraordinary” decision to find Suarez guilty of using a racist term during the Premier League game over two months earlier, whilst manager Kenny Dalglish tweeted that he was “very dissapointed” with the verdict and again pledged his support for Suarez.

In fact, Liverpool’s full statement at the time read more like a forum rant, telling of their doubts as to how the alleged conversation was only heard by Evra himself and no one else in the stadium.

Support Suarez tshirtThat was followed by a show of solidarity by the players of Liverpool, warming up for a December mid-week game at Wigan Athletic in t-shirts depicting the Reds number seven.

Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts tweeted at the time:

“The stance on the Suarez issue from LFC has bemused me…are United going to print Evra shirts now????? Some issues are bigger than football.”

Dalglish said on the night, “I think the boys showed their respect and admiration for Luis with wearing the T-shirts”.

Around a year later, after being sacked by the club’s owners for an underachieving season, Dalglish revealed, “The T-shirts were the players wanting to show their support for a team-mate.” Nevertheless, as manager of the team, Dalglish must claim some responsibility for the PR nightmare. He added, “A lot of things were misguided, misinterpreted and misrepresented.”

Gloria Hyatt MBE, of the Liverpool Black Leadership Forum said the club’s handling of the affair, “let down all of those in the city who worked hard to challenge racism and make Liverpool a better place to live for everyone.”

suarez_bite

Liverpool’s reaction to Bitegate was calm and well structured. Immediately after the 2-2 draw against Chelsea at Anfield on April 21st 2013, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers refused to comment on the incident, as did, wisely, Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez. A calm a collected first reaction for an incident which was only caught by TV cameras. Most fans in the ground knew nothing about it until they switched on to hear the National Anti-Luis Suarez Club on 606.

Later the same evening came an apology from the man himself over social media, shared and reported throughout the world immediately. Suarez tweeted:

I’m sad for what happened this afternoon, I apologize Ivanovic and all football world for my inexcusable behaviour. I’m so sorry about it!!

This was followed by a full, unreserved, official apology from the club and the news that Managing Director, Ian Ayre had cancelled plans for a business trip to Australia to stay on Merseyside and deal not with the matter, but Suarez himself. Liverpool were taking this seriously.

The wording of Liverpool’s statements and quotes from Ian Ayre firmly put the blame on no one but Suarez’s shoulders, but vowed to help their striker work on his discipline problem. A solid, condemning statement, before even a word from the Football Association.

“His behaviour is not befitting of any player wearing a Liverpool shirt and Luis is aware that he has let himself and everyone associated with the club down. We will deal with the matter internally and await any action from the FA.”

The next morning, the club fined the 26-year-old, with the money going to charity. The PR machine had even handed Suarez the first opportunity to announce the fine, again through social media adding that it was his wish for the fine to be donated to the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

The response, to both the player and in the interests of public image of the club, even impressed Suarez’s sports manufacturing sponsor. Adidas condoned Suarez’s behaviour and praised the Reds’ efforts in taking the situation by the scruff of the neck.

“We will be reminding him of the standards we expect from our players. Luis has admitted his actions were unacceptable and we support the way Liverpool are planning to handle the situation.”

BBC Sport’s Phil McNulty was also ready to point out the differences in Liverpool’s PR management compared to the last time round:

To Liverpool’s credit, there was no repeat of the ham-fisted PR shambles that accompanied Suarez’s altercation with Patrice Evra last season.

As this piece is published, the Football Association have handed Suarez a charge for violent conduct, stating that their regular three-match band is “clearly insufficient in these circumstances”. On the presumption that Suarez doesn’t argue the charge, an independent regulatory commission will be set up on convened on Wednesday, 24th April 2013.

Needless to say, the Football Association as equally as Liverpool need to be seen to act swiftly and correctly over this case. Already coming under criticism for their inability to punish Wigan’s Callum McManaman for a horror tackle on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara last month, the Football Association will be looking to do right where they did wrong in the dragged out John Terry/Anton Ferdinand racism saga.

No doubt there’s a long week ahead with this latest unnecessary headache for Suarez and Liverpool Football Club. There’s space and time for mistakes still to be made by both the player and the club. But the handling so far looks like Liverpool have learnt from past mistakes.

Last week, the Reds appointed Susan Black as the club’s new Director of Communications. Welcome to Liverpool, Susan.

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