The blunder of Crewe

Crewe Alexandra belatedly tried to change its communication strategy, but its continued reticence regarding the football sexual abuse scandal attracts attention for the wrong reasons.

This week marks four weeks since former Crewe Alexandra defender Andy Woodward first went public with his allegations of sexual abuse by Barry Bennell, and set in motion a scandal which has sparked new revelations almost daily ever since.

In the immediate aftermath of the Woodward’s revelations it was perhaps tempting to hope they were just the tip of a small iceberg affecting a handful of northwest England clubs. But as the days and weeks have passed, it has become clear that child sexual abuse was a largely hidden issue at possibly almost 100 clubs, ranging from grassroots youth teams in Scotland to the current Premiership leaders Chelsea.

As a long-time Crewe fan and a PR professional, I have naturally looked closely at how the club has handled the crisis it faces, and found it lacking. Five days into the scandal, its initial “No comment” strategy was proving disastrous, but it only briefly transformed its approach.

This most positive step came after what looked like a particularly dark day. On 25 November Woodward was joined by four other Bennell victims on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire talk show, while newspapers reported a former director’s allegations that Bennell had been allowed to stay at the club because directors hadn’t wanted to rely on hearsay evidence of abuse. The club briefly took the initiative: Crewe announced it would be holding an independent review into how they dealt with historical child sex abuse allegations: “an independent review, to be conducted via the appointment of external legal counsel, is the correct way forward,” it said.

Similar reviews were instigated at Chelsea and at the Football Association, with the latter responding flexibly to the changing situation, publishing the terms of reference of its review and naming the senior lawyer appointed to head it. But after that initial announcement, from Crewe … nothing! No news about its own terms of reference or about who will be heading up the review. And barely a comment or statement from anyone at the club in relation to the scandal – even the FA suspension of Crewe director of football Dario Gradi, announced on Sunday, only warranted a terse one-sentence statement.

While the club may have been advised not to say anything that might be legally sensitive, its communications about the scandal with supporters — after all, its main source of revenue — have been poor to non-existent, and have (rightly) been criticised by some of the constantly-watching journalists, like George Caulkin in The Times:

Crewe have played two home games since Woodward spoke out. There are legal issues to consider and a process to be adhered to, but neither match programme has contained a single reference — not a solitary word — about it. No admission, no apology, no reassurances, no acknowledgement that anything is happening, not even a few clichés about tough times on and off the pitch. One hundred and 36 pages. Nothing.

Caulkin signs off: “Dirty washing has been aired and Crewe have been found wanting. Business as usual.” Sadly only too true.

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