Resisting the Urge to Take the Bait: FIFA Jack Warner and Comedian John Oliver’s Video Showdown
I have spent a great deal of time working with religious leaders of all historic faith traditions from across the globe. One such religious leader—a Unitarian Universalist minister from the United States—often says, “You do not have to enter into every fight to which you are invited.” In other words: Don’t take the bait.
In times of crisis, competitors, journalists, and angry or confused stakeholders often make public accusations, some well-founded and some completely unfounded. And leaders of the organizations in crisis often exhibit an inclination to respond to every blow. I have witnessed leaders, who in all other times of stress exhibit clear and calm decision making, viscerally react when someone says something negative or unfounded about them or their organization. “We cannot let them keep saying this,” is a response I hear over and over again.
The decision criterion for what to do in times of crisis is to ask and answer the following question: “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do when this happens?” The answer to this question is what needs to be done in those critical first moments to maintain the trust and confidence of the stakeholders you care about the most and to get back to business as usual. And sometimes the answer is to respond publicly to the blow. But, other times, responding to every single negative accusation, every incorrect fact or mischaracterization, will fail to meet the reasonable expectations of stakeholders, and can also result in even greater public scrutiny and self-inflicted harm.
Take for example, the video showdown between former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner and HBO comedian John Oliver.
On May 27, the United States Justice Department issued a 47-count indictment for corruption and racketeering against nine officers of FIFA, the organization charged with the regulation and promotion of soccer worldwide, and five corporate executives. Jack Warner, former Vice President of FIFA and former member of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament, is one of the FIFA officials who was indicted. The 72-year old is accused of taking a $10 million payout to award South Africa, rather than Morocco, the 2010 World Cup. This is not the first time Warner has been embroiled in a scandal. He stepped down from his role in FIFA in 2011 due to allegations of corruption.
Jack Warner’s name has become prominent as one of the colorful cast of characters involved in this ever-evolving scandal. He was arrested on May 27, and released the next day, taken out by ambulance, because, he said, he was suffering from exhaustion. But just a few hours later he took to the stage in celebration to proclaim his innocence.
His reputation, already in tatters, was further destroyed after the release of a video appeal made on Trinidad and Tobago airwaves on May 31. [If you have time, watch the full 8 minute video. If not, watch from 4:24 to 6:34.]
In his long, rambling address, Warner holds up a newspaper with a headline reading, “FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup in the United States.” This headline came from a satirical newspaper that exists to poke fun of newspapers, The Onion. This distinction seemed lost on Warner.
He held up the paper as evidence of an American conspiracy to punish FIFA for rejecting the US bid to host World Cup. “The US applied to hold the World Cup in 2022 and they lost the bid to Qatar—a small country, an Arabic country, a Muslim country. I could understand the US embarrassment,” Warner stated. He advised the US to, “Take your losses like a man, and go.”
Though Warner took down the video the same day, it was too late to prevent it from spreading across social media. International media pounced, shredding Jack Warner for his use of a satirical newspaper as evidence of a conspiracy. But this did not stop Warner from continuing to play out his response to the indictment publicly. Part of his strategy was the creation of yet another video, aired on Trinidad and Tobago’s local TV station, to make his case: “Jack Warner: The Gloves Are Off.”[If you have time, watch the full 7-minute video. If not, watch from 3:40 to the end.]
In this dramatic video, Warner pledges to release evidence he has of corruption in FIFA in large amounts of documents dispersed amongst a variety of federal authorities. This pledge was received skeptically, as his reputation was already in ruins.
One skeptic went so far as to make a plea to Jack Warner to go even further in releasing the documents, using the same medium that Warner used to deliver his messages—a paid advertisement aired on Trinidad and Tobago’s Channel 6 in a commercial break during the American television program Mike and Molly. John Oliver, comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, made his plea: “John Oliver: The Mittens of Disapproval Are On.”[Unfortunately, you will need to watch this video on YouTube per the video owner’s request. Trust me — it is worth watching in full.]
John Oliver delivered his plea in his clear comedic style. “Why should you do it?” he argued. “Well right now, Jack, everybody hates you. I mean, literally, everybody. I think it has something to do with you seeming like an absolutely terrible human being… Please release the documents Mr. Warner, and you may yet salvage your completely tattered reputation.”
Oliver’s scathing yet hilarious plea to Warner is a typical example of what we have come to expect from comedians such as this. In the past two decades, these satirical news comedy programs have reached high acclaim, in part due to the comedic genius of hosts such as John Stewart, Steven Colbert, Larry Wilmore and John Oliver. But part of the esteem has come from the fact that these programs, living in the intersection of news, politics, and comedy, have become a primary source of actual, trusted news for the younger generations. And even the news media being mocked by the programs have fallen into the trap of holding these comedy shows up to the standards of actual news programs. However, the fact remains that hosts like John Oliver are comedians. Not news anchors, comedians.
Again this distinction seemed lost on Jack Warner, who crafted a video response to Oliver’s plea, aired on the same Trinidad and Tobago local TV channel.
This strange video shows a very serious Jack Warner responding to Oliver’s video advice as if it was something more serious than comedy. After chastising the TV station itself for even airing Oliver’s video, Warner makes clear, “I don’t need any advice from any comedian fool, who doesn’t know anything about this country, about what files to release and what not to release. It is none of his business, and I take no instructions from him.” As the music literally builds to a crescendo, he tries to deliver a strong message about the state of the country and the need to keep outside countries from interfering in the business of Trinidad and Tobago.
Unsurprisingly, the response to this video did not help Warner’s reputation globally. For example, Warner’s video received flak from The Huffington Post in an article titled, “Jack Warner Responds To John Oliver, Gets Upstaged By His Own Music.” But the response that most succinctly summed up how Warner’s response only caused more harm his reputation came from John Oliver yet again.
Thankfully, Warner did not create a response to Oliver’s gauntlet thrown at the end of that last video, but by this point Warner had already lost any opportunity he had to rebuild his reputation internationally. In Trinidad and Tobago, which was his primary audience in all of his video messages, Warner’s reputation was tarnished by the scandal, but he has not yet lost the support of the many of people. As the legal proceedings begin, we will have to wait and see what happens.
The video showdown between Warner and Oliver illustrates the costs of what happens when you are caught taking the bait—it only causes further harm. And though in this case it did not destroy Warner’s credibility at home, the cost internationally was severe.
When in crisis we need to resist the urge to do things that make us feel good, but do not actual respond to the concerns of the people who matter most to us. Taking the bait is one example of this. It is not only ineffective, but also self-indulgent. The priority in any crisis is to maintain the trust and confidence of your stakeholders. It means figuring out the answer to that question, “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do when faced with this?”
Figuring out and implementing the answer, whatever it may be, requires discipline. It can be hard to do in the midst of a crisis, as the many voices around you shout with advice and worry and panic, and when you may have to do things that do not make you feel better. But if you take a moment to take a breath, think clearly and remember the following sage words of advice, you can begin to build the discipline of responding to crises in effective and timely ways: “You do not have to enter into every fight to which you are invited.”