Liverpool striker, Luis Suarez has justifiably been handed a whopping 10 match ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic on the arm during Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with the Blues at Anfield on Sunday. This is a huge loss for the club, as it will be without its star asset for effectively a quarter of a football season. He will undoubtedly be an enormous loss on the field; but how will this affect the brand that is Liverpool Football Club? Whilst their pedigree on the pitch is no longer that of the Hansen and Souness days, Liverpool’s reputation as a brand in world football is still pretty formidable in spite of Suarez’s best attempts to ruin it.
This is not Suarez’s first highly controversial incident and unfortunately it probably will not be his last as his history is littered with controversy, even before arriving on these shores. Around 18 months ago Suarez was famously awarded an eight game ban for racially abusing Manchester United left back Patrice Evra. The Merseyside club’s comms strategy following the Evra racism incident was widely criticised as being ‘naïve’, ‘weak’ and ultimately ‘too little too late’ with Liverpool only accepting his ban and the severity of Suarez’s actions once they had received out right condemnation from the world of football, and more importantly for Luis and the Liverpool coaching staff from their American owners the Fenway Sports Group. The club stupidly did not condemn his actions and actually rallied behind Suarez in the form of the entire team (including Glen Johnson) wearing Suarez t-shirts in a pre-match training session, highlighting how out of touch Liverpool was with PR and public perception.
This episode hit tipping point when Suarez (back after serving his ban) refused to shake Evra’s hand when their two clubs faced each other next at Old Trafford. This lead to Red Devils boss Sir Alex Ferguson quite rightly labelling Suarez a ‘disgrace to Liverpool Football Club’. The then Liverpool boss, Kenny Dalglish again supported his racist forward which some argue ultimately cost him his job as Liverpool manager.
Following this latest mishap, the Anfield club has responded in a very different manner, and has even been commended on its PR strategy this time. Unlike the Evra incident, this time Liverpool has taken the correct course of action. So what did the club do differently this time?
Firstly, as with most well planned and managed crisis comms situations, the Uruguayan took to Twitter almost immediately apologising to Ivanovic and the wider world for his ‘inexcusable behaviour’. Suarez’s use of Twitter highlights the micro blogging site as the instant news line and widely accepted channel for making a statement. Importantly though in a situation such as this, the communications should not cease with Twitter.
The reaction of the club’s hierarchy in the proceeding hours was far improved if not a spectacular change from the Evra incident with Managing Director Ian Ayres cancelling a trip to Australia and stating that Suarez’s behaviour ‘was not befitting of any player wearing a Liverpool shirt’. Manager Brendan Rodgers also condemned the biting and talked up the fabulous history of the club. By Sunday night, the Liverpool FC website had statements from the hungry striker, Ayres and Rodgers – a marked contrast to Evragate. Liverpool ticked all the boxes without going over the top on PR so it will be interesting how preseason and next season unfold.
Liverpool has learnt its lesson, and time will tell whether Suarez has, although history will suggest he might not have. The 18 time league champions should cut their losses on Suarez as no one individual is bigger than a football club, but unfortunately in such a results driven industry the owners will not risk league and financial prowess in favour of doing the right thing.
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