Actions, not words: crisis lessons from tackling racism in sport

Manchester City footballer Raheem Sterling spoke to Sky News this week about the urgent need for action to tackle racism in sport.

He said campaigns like Kick it Out, and the ‘Enough’ campaign – a 24-hour social media boycott organised by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) that took place last week – help to create awareness, but you need real action to back it up. “Is it a campaign for three days and then it blows over?” he asked.

The PFA reported that many of the players who took part in the boycott received more racist abuse on social media as a result, something the PFA will tackle in discussions with the major social media platforms, and players themselves such as Spurs’ Danny Rose, are pushing the platforms to address.

But the root problem isn’t with the channels, it’s with the people using those channels to spread hate and abuse.

Tackling issues like racism, bullying or abuse of any kind takes more than awareness. It’s important, of course, but on its own it isn’t enough. It needs real action to change behaviour.

When you are managing an issue or dealing with a full-blown crisis situation, the most important thing is to do something, then communicate publicly what you’re doing, then communicate what you’ve done. And keep communicating what you’ve achieved. Awareness campaigns are great for building support for that action, but they must be done together, and as part of a long-term strategy. If you don’t know where to start, a good rule of thumb is to start by looking after the people impacted by the issue – your team, your customers, your supporters. In the case of sports bodies, that means protecting players from abuse, and then tackling the behaviour of those who abuse them.

Addressing the underlying cause of the problem is unlikely to be done in isolation. Working with the appropriate authorities, organisations, charities or campaign groups can help to make a real difference.

Importantly, set goals, and measure them. What, realistically, can you achieve? Think about whether your campaign is reaching the people it needs to (or whether it is preaching to the converted). It might make headlines, but if you want to affect change, you need to track how it is resonating with its audiences, and how it is changing attitudes and behaviour. Use insight from that data to adapt the campaign if you need to.

Any campaign to tackle racism is to be applauded. But as Sterling said, it will take more than one social media campaign alone to change behaviour.

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