Barcelona is suffering a wave of threats to its reputation as a result of the trickle of information about the Negreira case. A fortnight ago, La SER triggered the media earthquake by reporting on Barça’s payments to the company of the former vice-president of the College of Referees, Enríquez Negreira, in exchange for refereeing and players’ reports from 2016 and 2018, which amounted to 1.4 million euros. The controversy was served.
Since then, the Barcelona leadership has been living critical hours, where any decision on its position can be decisive, in a context in which football clubs are more called than ever to ensure transparency. A principle that has been progressively reinforced by the laws of sport in recent years.
According to the CEO and partner of Villafañe & Asociados Consultores, Sebastián Cebrián, compliance with these laws by the clubs has led to an improvement in the reality of these organisations. However, he believes that the perceptions of this reality respond “to very different patterns, basically because they are guided by passions, emotions, the unconditional support of a club and its players”.
According to Cebrián, Barcelona is trying to withstand this outburst as “one of the most reputable clubs in the world, a recognition that is endorsed in its history, trajectory, in being one of the ten clubs with the highest income on the planet or with the most valued football brand”. Therefore, he considers that “the current scandal has not diminished its reputation, or at least not for the moment, although it could do so in the future, depending on the evolution of the open investigations and the repercussions they entail”.
Sebastián Cebrián (Villafañe & Asociados Consultores): “The scandal has not damaged Barcelona’s reputation, at least not for the moment.
For Yago de la Cierva, senior lecturer at the IESE Business School and reputation expert, Barcelona has “a fantastic reputation, a globally recognised brand that forms part of the aura of both the city and Catalonia. Its name speaks of excellence, roots or generosity, as they have a very ambitious responsibility programme”.
However, the academic believes that, despite its reputational muscle, the club may not be immune to the Negreira case. “The impact will be appreciable, but it is too early to determine its seriousness, because the story is not over. The most important thing is the internal public. I think there are many fans with suspicion planted in their minds, but who have not yet taken a clear position on the matter, waiting for developments. But if it is not properly resolved, then the scandal will be as global as its brand.
Yago de la Cierva (IESE Business School): “If Barça does not resolve the case properly, the scandal will be as global as its brand”.
One of the most worrying factors for the club has been the reactions of the football bodies. For the moment, the national ones might have provoked a sigh of relief, after the Royal Spanish Football Federation decided to disassociate itself from the case and the president of LaLiga, Javier Tebas, warned that there can be no sporting sanctions against Barcelona, because the statute of limitations has already expired.
But at the European level, the case could become more sensitive, as UEFA does have sanctioning powers. The CEO of Villafañe & Asociados Consultores believes that “although unlikely, sanctions could even disqualify the club from participating in the Champions League or an improbable dissolution, which would imply great damage, deterioration or destruction of the club’s reputation, its coffers and the mood and perceptions of fans, players or management”.
Proper” management after controversial “silence”
Although most large organisations have a crisis communication manual foreseen for possible corporate turmoil, the reality is that there is no irrefutable formula for crisis management. In fact, experts have different opinions on Barça’s actions in this crisis.
Cebrián considers, on the one hand, that “the club is acting correctly in its actions and in the management of its communication”. In situations like this, he recommends “always acting from the inside, and speaking out in a calibrated and balanced way with what is being done, showing attention, not minimising the event, modulating the action and the message and being concrete”. The expert defends that the club, with the announcement of the start of internal investigations, has shown “responsibility in the face of a matter that is, to say the least, opaque and apparently serious”.
However, Cebrián considers that Barcelona could have managed its first reactions better. “The club’s initial silence was surprising and it took them a while to react, but they did, and that is the right thing to do. The initial terse institutional communiqué and a brief statement from its president, Joan Laporta, satisfied almost no one.” “I think it started with doubts, but it has been calibrated in the right way,” he adds.
The IESE Business School academic is somewhat more critical, stating that “nobody should have more interest in clarifying the truth than Barcelona itself, and yet it has first remained silent, and then responded by fanning the flames with its opponents. I think this is a mistake: in a crisis you should not attack anyone, because it only makes the situation worse”.
The antidote of transparency
De la Cierva would advise the club to convene an “urgent external commission of enquiry commissioned to a prestigious independent, accept the responsibilities demonstrated by this, open another internal commission of enquiry to study the causes to avoid a repetition, activate a plan to renew the institutional culture if it is seen that wrong decisions were knowingly taken, temporarily remove from their functions the people who are involved and who could destroy evidence or collaborate with La Liga and the Federation”.
Reputation experts deduce that the shadow of the Negreira case will continue to follow the club for months or even years, so they would recommend that the club does not lower its guard in its reputational management, with transparency as a permanent antidote.