Essendon sponsorship deals saved by ‘open and honest’ approach, says CMO

Essendon Football Club retained its sponsors, and even struck one multi-million dollar deal, despite being immersed in one of the country’s biggest sporting scandals and facing the “biggest brand challenge in Australian sporting history”.

Chief marketing officer of the embattled club, Justin Rodski, said Essendon held on to its sponsors by being “upfront, open and honest” about its travails.


From left: moderator Andrew Woodward; Maxus CEO Mark McCraith; Australian Rugby Union head of partnerships Pete Scibberas; and Essendon Football Club CMO Justin Rodski

Speaking at the Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit in Sydney, Rodski admitted the AFL club was still fighting to salvage its reputation, a process that could take “years”.

Essendon was bought to its knees in 2013 amid a series of highly damaging stories over performance-enhancing drugs taken by its players.

Rodski described the past three-and-a-half years as “an incredibly challenging and difficult period for everyone involved”.

“Most crisis management situations, or scandals, might last 24-48 hours, maybe a week, and we have been dealing with a significant issue for the best part of four years,” he told delegates at Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney.

“At club level this has certainly been the biggest brand challenge in Australian sporting history, and it’s still on-going.”

Asked to compare its current sponsorship list with the club’s pre-scandal days, Rodski said: “Since this started on February 5, 2013, we have not lost one sponsor. We actually added a major sponsorship during that time, Fujitsu.

“We had True Value Solar and Kia as major partners and in 2014 we moved True Value Solar to another asset, which was the naming rights of our facility, and we brought in Fujitsu as a new co-major partner.

“One of the reasons [we didn’t lose a sponsor] was the strength of the relationship between CEO, Xavier Campbell, and the brands. He was former chief commercial officer and had existing relationships and continued to nurture those relationships.

“Another reason was about transparency and communication. We ensured we were completely upfront about everything that was happening at the club. We were open and honest. In times of crisis it’s about how you respond.”

He added the club is doing “everything we can” to ensure the years of crisis “don’t define Essendon Football Club”.

“We’re a big club that made some big mistakes. We have been doing an enormous amount to rebuild our brand and it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Asked later by Mumbrella if the contracts had been renegotiated in light of the scandal, Rodski said: “During the last four years a number of our contracts with sponsors have been renewed but the terms of contracts are not something we discuss publicly.”

Appearing on a panel on crisis management, Rodski said the first people it kept informed of developments were staff, followed by stakeholders, including sponsors. Club members were next, and lastly, the media.

With News Limited and Fairfax embroiled in a media war, each with their own agendas, Rodski said it became vital to talk directly to fans.

“We saw key journalists in town taking sides and effectively there was a media war. It was News Limited v Fairfax, Herald Sun v The Age, and that created enormous tensions between the two,” he said.

Rodski advised clubs caught up in crisis – Parramatta Eels was cited by moderator Andrew Woodward as an example – to remove those figures embroiled in the drama.

“First and foremost, any person in a position of leadership who has been involved in any of those issues shouldn’t be at the club,” he said. “As soon as key people in positions of leadership leave, the pressure valve releases a little bit more.

“It happened with our CEO, chairman and coach. And it even happened with our second chairman who, rightly or wrongly, was associated with the issues.”

The marketer also urged clubs facing crisis to “connect with fans” and not to talk publicly until the facts are known.

“In any crisis management situation, rule 101 is know the facts before you say anything publicly. If you are not sure, don’t say it as we all know it will come back and bite you.”

Meanwhile, Australian Rugby Union (ARU) head of partnerships, Pete Scibberas, said it was “understandable” that Holden diverted some of its sponsorship money from Collingwood to the club’s women’s team in light of comments made by Eddie McGuire.

McGuire, Collingwood’s president, spoke about drowning journalist Caroline Wilson, which many took to be casually condoning violence against women.

Scibberas said Holden’s decision was “honourable”.

“It showed that maybe Holden was bigger than the Collingwood brand and Eddie certainly positions Collingwood as the biggest sporting brand in the world,” he said.

“Eddie has been targeted for various things and that [his comments about Wilson] was the volcano that hit its absolute optimum. Look, it’s understandable. I think the Holden decision to move to women was pertinent because there is a great movement to women’s sport at the moment.”


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