Telum Talks To... Patrick O'Beirne from Six O'Clock Advisory about how the darkest days in Australian sport inspired a movement

Telum Talks To... Patrick O'Beirne from Six O'Clock Advisory about how the darkest days in Australian sport inspired a movement

Few will forget the words of former ASADA Chief Richard Ings when he declared the 8th of February 2013 as “the blackest day in Australian sport”. He was referring to the Australian Crime Commission report revealing the increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs across multiple codes and links with organized crime. It was a dark day indeed.

Australian sport, somehow, managed to recover and move forward. Then, beneath a stark blue South African sky on March 24th 2018, a tiny square of yellow cast, perhaps, an even darker shadow over sport in Australia. Sand-paper-gate took the shine from much more than a cherry-red Kookaburra that day. How could the reputation of sport in Australia ever recover?

The path to redemption will be “paved by good governance at sporting organisations and investment in appropriate integrity measures”, that’s according to Patrick O’Beirne, a Director at Melbourne-based communications firm Six O’Clock Advisory.

In this interview, Patrick takes us through the correlation between integrity and brand reputation in sport, and how these principles led to the formation of SIGPA - a body dedicated to protecting and promoting best-practice integrity and governance across Australia’s sporting industry. He also explains how the same lessons learnt in this area can be applied across corporate Australia.

What is SIGPA and why has it recently launched?
Sport Integrity and Governance Partners (SIGPA) is the brainchild of Iain Roy, Malcom Speed, and Dale Wood - three highly respected sporting sector executives - who have united their expertise with a common purpose to protect and promote sport long into the future. If you remember the “blackest day in Australian sport”, well it was an awakening for the sector. Since then, there has been some good work done by government to lead the way, but it has always been a tricky area to navigate, particularly for second-tier sports. Then we had sand-paper-gate. Iain was at the coalface of that Cape Town incident, conducting Cricket Australia’s internal review and investigation for Cricket Australia, and later arrived at a conclusion that if this was sport’s hour of need, then more needed to be done. So, he corralled a list of eminent experts and has made them available to Australian sport and organisations invested in the sector to help design and deliver best-practice integrity and governance across the industry.

Sport Integrity and Governance Partners (SIGPA) will work with national sporting organisations and government to provide a suite of services covering more than 30 critical areas that threaten viability of sports today and in future, including governance cultural reviews, investigations, critical incident management, whistle-blower protections, anti-doping, policy design and child-safety frameworks.

SIGPA is a collective of experienced and highly-credentialed sporting administrators, medical professionals, lawyers, gaming industry experts, data analysts and university researchers formed to help protect and promote best-practice integrity and governance across Australia’s sporting industry. The full cohort is listed here.

Six O’Clock will provide SIGPA clients with strategic communication, stakeholder engagement and reputation management services, strategy and advice, including in the area of issues and crisis management and profiling governance and integrity initiatives and investment.

We’ve got to remember that there is an intersection between integrity measures and brand reputation, and it’s become clear over recent years how important good governance is to the public’s faith in the sports they love. The launch of SIGPA comes at a crucial time for the sporting sector, with scrutiny on trust at an all-time high.

SIGPA was launched in 2020. Was COVID-19 the catalyst for the launch?
The short answer to that question is no. In my view, Australian sport has always needed an entity like SIGPA. What COVID does is crystallise the importance of integrity and strong governance. Most sporting organisations are looking at lowering costs to run their sports during a period of reduced revenues, and some, undoubtedly, will look at cutting costs in integrity. This is a dangerous game, with unscrupulous individuals hovering to penetrate weakened processes and arguably more vulnerable athletes. When you start to cut costs in sport and there is a reduction in the investment in integrity, sports become more penetrable from corruption, and more susceptible to poor practice.

Why is managing brand reputation in sport different to managing reputation in the corporate world?
Most boards and organisations should have reputation in the top three to four concerns. Indeed, we have had a reputation agenda upon us over the past five years or so following myriad Royal Commissions and countless cases of corporate misconduct, all at a time when immediate exposure (thanks to citizen journalism and digital media) is a reality.

We observe that sport is a bit different to other sectors though. The profile of sport means an intense early period in an issue and crisis as media serve up the scrutiny that fans demand. Emotion plays a part as fans are sometimes affronted with the behaviour of their heroes.

But that same emotion means sport’s public is ultimately more forgiving - it’s quick to accept apology, and move on. As sporting fans we feel a need to ‘punch our ticket’ - watch, listen, attend (if we can), follow and barrack because we need sport in our lives; our heroes give us a sense of purpose and positive distraction from our other lives.

So while the fanaticism initially makes for a high-profile and contentious issue, in the end it’s a helpful dynamic as organisations or individuals try to rebuild reputation - Essendon grew its membership base during its supplements scandal, cricket carries on. 

How do you communicate good governance in sport when people are often so focused on the scandals?
If you ask the everyday fan of a sport, they probably care little about the administration. Unless things go wrong. It’s generally about winning or losing, or if they like the way a team is winning or losing. What’s often not understood is that the way a team or administration runs itself comes from the way organisations are led, from the board through to the executive. The culture that runs through an organisation off the field matters, and governance is the function from which good culture comes. It’s about helping them realise good governance impacts every aspect of the sport.

Cricket’s the latest case study of this truism. In the end, tolerance of behaviours and cultural approaches and acceptances meant cheating ensued in South Africa - something the independent review by the Ethics Centre underlined.

A strong focus on good governance infiltrates every other working of a club or sporting administration, not dissimilar to corporate Australia or even small business Australia.

What can the wider business community learn from SIGPAs pursuit of building trust at sporting organisations?
The principles of trust and strong reputation are essentially the same across all industries. We discussed the higher exposure in sport and the additional layers of emotion and fanaticism. But no matter what the sector, all roads lead to reputation.

If an organisation can organise itself so that it's seen to be operating transparently and with authenticity, then you’re halfway there. If you’ve got myriad stakeholders and can organise a united front on the issues of the organisation or sector then that’s good, but keeping up that consistent level of communication that’s transparent and authentic is really important.

The other part we encourage clients to over-invest in is their stakeholder engagement. How often are you speaking to the organisations in your sector that are important to you? Why are you speaking to them and with what? What is the strength of the relationship? Because if there are times of adversity, you want your stakeholders advocating for you, or at least not detracting from you. This is as true in the corporate world as it is in sport.

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