Over the past few weeks, Yorkshire County Cricket Club have been engulfed in allegations of racism – with the issue spreading across cricket in the UK and plunging the game into an existential crisis.
Few can fail to be shocked and moved at the testimony of both Azeem Rafiq and former Yorkshire academy players Irfan Amjad and Tabassum Bhatti before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee detailing the racism they were subjected to.
The whole situation has spiralled out of the club’s control and as ever worse, revelations have emerged by the day, threatening the reputation of the game, which has been branded institutionally racist. More than 1,000 people have contacted an inquiry into discrimination in the game in the past week.
Alastair Campbell, in his book Winners and How They Succeed, said: “When things go wrong, the natural human tendency is to hope, firstly that it’s not your fault, and secondly that it will all simply go away if you shut your eyes for long enough. Both hopes are wrong and they cause untold damage”,
You can’t help but think that Yorkshire’s response to this has made its problems immeasurably worse – so what are the crisis communications mistakes that they, and others who have been drawn into this situation, have made?
1. Do the right thing
Yorkshire’s actions throughout have sought to downplay the seriousness of the allegations, for example, describing racist comments as “banter”. When the independent panel it set up found Rafiq had been a victim of “racial harassment and bullying” at Yorkshire, the club decided not to take disciplinary action against any player, employee or executive.
If an organisation wants to deal properly with a crisis, it has to be seen to do the right thing – and actually do it.
Where it’s clear a toxic culture has been allowed to flourish, the club must show they now have a zero-tolerance approach to any kind of bullying and harassment, and detail the steps they are taking to stamp it out.
If you have been found to be in the wrong, you have to issue an immediate and sincere apology to recover your reputation. Demonstrating genuine regret and contrition will enable you to move on. Tempering an apology with denials, as some have done, doesn’t work.
Rafiq said one player, his former England and Yorkshire team-mate Matthew Hoggard, had called him to apologise, and others, including the new Yorkshire chairman Lord Patel, have followed.
3. Take robust and meaningful action
It’s vital in a crisis that you address what has gone wrong, investigate it thoroughly and promise to act on any recommendations – and Lord Patel has promised to address the charge of institutional racism “head-on”.
While the club did launch an investigation, they also wined and dined the panel at a Headingley test match, fuelling suspicions that it was not completely independent.
Speaking to the select committee, Yorkshire’s former chairman, Roger Hutton, offered his “profound apologies” to Rafiq, and said Yorkshire’s director of cricket Martyn Moxon and former chief executive Mark Arthur “failed to accept the gravity of the situation”.
“They have not wanted to apologise or take the recommendations of the panel going forward,” he added.
4. Be open and transparent
In Winners, Alastair Campbell also makes the point that you can’t try to hide wrongdoing – if you do, you will be found out. Throughout this whole situation, Yorkshire has been the opposite of open and transparent.
As we have seen, the investigation wasn’t fully transparent, the club refused to publish its findings fully, they wouldn’t apologise, they tried to buy Azeem Rafiq’s silence and they also refused to appear before the select committee.
All this smacks of an organisation which knows it is in the wrong, but wants to hide its head in the sand rather than confront its shortcomings and deal with them.
Yorkshire County Cricket Club has made a series of crisis communications mistakes, and its reputation is now in shreds. It will take a lot of work by its new chairman and its leadership to recover from this. What Azeem Rafiq hopes that this will prove a watershed moment, and that the club, and English cricket as a whole, will have learned from this.