The ethical dilemma FIFA’s sponsors still face

As I was re-reading the April 2011 ‘Failure Edition’ of HBR on the train back to London a couple of days ago, drugs the article by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel on Ethical Breakdowns struck me as particularly relevant for FIFA’s sponsors – Coca-Cola, canada cheap Adidas, health Emirates, Sony, Hyundai/Kia and Visa among others – in the light of the bribery scandal that has engulfed that organization.

Bazerman and Tenbrunsel outline five reasons why ethical people allow unethical behavior to thrive.  These include two of relevance to the FIFA situation – a tendency to overlook the unethical behavior of others when it’s in our interest to remain ignorant and holding others less accountable when the unethical behavior is carried out by third parties.  Indeed the latter has implications for all businesses that use sponsorship to build their brand image.

Last week’s re-election of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president for the next 4 years followed the suspension of his only opponent, Mohamed Bin Hammam, due to allegations of corruption.  In the run-up, FIFA sponsors came under increasing pressure in both the press and on social media sites to intervene and delay the election so an alternative ‘reforming’ candidate could be found.

Understandably they will be hoping the furor dies down now the election has taken place.  But that is unlikely to happen, not least because Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup, which Blatter does not wish to revisit, was led by the now-disgraced Bin Hammam.  Any failure to rigorously investigate the 2022 voting process will give a ten-year life span to rumors that Qatar ‘bought’, to use the term employed by FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke, the competition through foul means, not the fair ones Valcke claims he meant.

Whether they like it or not, FIFA’s sponsors have become as associated with the organization that runs soccer internationally as the beautiful game itself.  In attempting to capture the attention and loyalty of the hundreds of millions of people across the globe for whom soccer is a passion and pass-time, they have become linked with a body that is widely perceived in the western world to be a hotbed of corruption – where a lack of transparency provides the perfect environment for squalid deal-making and cronyism to thrive.

There is a relatively simple solution to this dilemma – simply demand that FIFA employ an independent auditor to investigate firstly its disbursement of funds and secondly the 2022 bid.  It is likely that any such investigation will reveal nothing about the latter – any whistleblowers would have come forward by now and those whose votes were bought have no incentive to make such a confession – but the former should at least uncover whether funds provided by FIFA have been used for appropriate purposes and whether sufficient governance is in place to ensure ethical standards are met.

Blatter is likely to argue that such a step is unnecessary, that he can make the reforms required.  But given he has been president for the last 16 years, he is responsible for the culture that is now under question and such protestations should only encourage the sponsors to insist that the investigation be independent of the FIFA executive committee and free to announce publicly if it is being impeded in its investigation.  Any such comment would alert the Swiss government and risk a de-certification of FIFA’s tax-free status in that country – as much a part of FIFA’s commercial life-blood as the funds provided by its sponsors.

Only the Swiss government and its sponsors have the power to force FIFA to become more transparent and ensure that any cronyism and corruption is rooted out.  If it is not to be a case of good people letting bad things happen, to cite Bazerman and Tenbrunsel again, they should use that power, not least to protect their own reputations.

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Jack Springman is the author of Elusive Growth: why prevailing practices in strategy, marketing and management education are the problem, not the solution (Old Broad Street Press, 2011)

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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.