The Stade de France incidents : a good example of a failed crisis communication
Random handling of the arrival of supporters, aggressions around the stadium, conflicts with police forces, the Champions League final which opposed Liverpool to Real Madrid in Paris on the 27th May, 2022 quickly turned into a nightmare. The event triggered a crisis that the minister of the Interior struggled to emerge from, right in the middle of the legislative campaign and merely two years from the Olympics and Paralympics, as well the Rugby World Cup hosted next year. The cause? Undeniable shortcomings in the global organization of stadium entrance and the maintaining of public order, but also a clearly inadequate communication strategy. What lessons can be learned from this poorly handled episode?
The very next day, on Saturday 28th, on Twitter as well as on TF1’s news broadcast, Gérald Darmanin targeted the “30 000 to 40 000 Liverpool supporters with counterfeit tickets or without tickets at all”. He attempted to emerge from the crisis by directly blaming the Liverpool supporters, accusing them of causing the chaos that surrounded the Champions League final. By doing so, Gerald Darmanin committed at least four major mistakes in terms of crisis communication.
Complete denial: a dangerous strategy
The first mistake was choosing a communication strategy purely based on denial. This strategy, which consists in denying all responsibility and shifting the blame on the other people involved is extremely dangerous. In the era of social media, 24/7 news channels and globalized transparency, it has to imply having absolutely nothing to hide, because it makes the “denier” vulnerable to later revelations… which did not fail to happen!
Adopting a communication strategy based on the multiplicity of events causing the crisis would have consisted in the minister of the Interior acknowledging the part of responsibly from law enforcement all while enlarging the scope of responsible parties (the UEFA, the Stade de France, Liverpool supporters, the RATP, the workers in strike from the RER B train line…). This would have been more tangible and would have subsequently paid off: no one truly believes that a such fiasco in the organization of an event this size solely relies on the ministry of the Interior.
A rushed response
The second mistake committed by the minister of the Interior is that he seems to have confused reactivity and precipitation by directly pointing the finger at the massive ticket fraud as the main cause for the clashes that happened during the Champions League final.
It is fairly rare that solely one factor is at the root of such a crisis. A careful and minimalistic approach based on caution and transparency would have been more adapted. For example, it could have consisted in listing the organizational failures, leading the minister to commission a full report in order to shine some light on what went wrong. The minister of Sports has shown herself to be wiser by promptly asking the Inter-ministerial Delegate to Major Sporting Events Michel Cadot to work on a report, which must “synthesize the main intervening factors and the lessons to be learned in the further management of big sports events”.
An overly direct exposure to the crisis
By showcasing himself at the Security control room of the Stade de France in a tweet posted on the night of the game, Gerald Darmanin directly became the person in charge of handling the crisis. However, directly exposing oneself is strongly advised against, in order to always keep a margin of reaction. If the Préfet de Police had been the only spokesperson in a first step, the minister of the Interior would have benefited from precious moments, which would have allowed him to closely examine all aspects of the shortcomings and therefore better prepare his communication strategy.
Empathy towards victims is one of the fundamental rules of crisis communication. In this case, videos and testimonies appeared of Liverpool supporters – some attending the game with their families – being manhandled by law enforcement, assaulted by delinquents outside the stadium, or being unable to attend the game even while in possession of actual tickets. This truly shocked the public opinion, even more so than the fact that the minister of the Interior has not issued any sort of apology before nor during his intervention on TF1’s news broadcast. The President has not made the same mistake, and according the analyses published in the press, pushed him to make amends to defuse the anger of the English and the Spanish… which he did, but quietly, during his later audition before the Senate!
If the operative shortcomings which caused the crisis will be examined in the “Cadot report”, the executive has to learn from this debacle important lessons for its crisis communication. Especially in order to avoid tarnishing France’s image in front of the entire world, as the Rugby World Cup, the Olympics and the Paralympics will be held in France in the next two years.