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Why African Athletes Need Strong Public Relations

Why African Athletes Need Strong Public Relations

Why African Athletes Need Strong Public Relations| Afrocritik

It becomes increasingly necessary as days go by that effective communication is a need for people who have a level of popularity and that includes sportspeople. 

By Tuka Letura

After the poor performance by Nigeria’s men’s senior national football team in the two legs of World Cup Qualifying in June 2024, several stories have circulated in the tabloids about their output.  They drew against South Africa at home and lost to Benin Republic, whose team is now headed by former Super Eagles coach, Gernot Rohr, in Côte d’Ivoire. While some of the stories have been genuine,  most have been far-fetched, with the most significant being the claim that  Finidi George, Nigeria’s current coach, had questioned the commitment of Nigeria’s star striker Victor Osimhen, who missed both games due to injury. It also claimed that Finidi said, in an interview, that he would not beg Osimhen to play for the team after meeting with NFF chieftains and Sports Minister John Enoh in Abuja to review the Super Eagles’ struggling 2026 World Cup campaign.

Finidi George jpg
Super Eagles coach, Finidi George

The aftermath of this saw Osimhen take to social media on a live video via his Instagram to address the story. On that live feed, he got very emotional, hauling insults at Finidi until he was forced to end it. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest that Finidi did in fact say this. All available evidence pointed to the story being fabricated. Another case of a tabloid making a headline without any concrete source of that information. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen unprecedented flare-ups and outbursts from athletes across Africa and the globe. A more recent example is Ronaldo getting on an interview with TV host Piers Morgan in 2022, while he was still contracted to Manchester United, to discuss ownership issues. A situation that primed his exit from the club weeks later. It’s also bound to happen again and eventually leave a bad taste in people’s mouths when the athlete is in focus.

There are other incidents of public relations slips in the past which haven’t been as severe as this is. Victor Anichebe’s now-deleted X post after a game against West Ham in October 2016, is another example, where he copied and pasted the entire message his team sent to him, including instructions, resulting in a social media frenzy. This ultimately showed a lack of proper structure in his communications team. 

Victor Anichebe Tweet jpg

In sports, an athlete’s performance during games and events isn’t the only part that gets the spotlight. Reputation outside the event matters just as much, especially for elite athletes. Having significant control over their public image is crucial for athletes, as public relations failures can greatly impact their careers. For example, American Olympic Gold medalist, Ryan Lochte, faced major backlash and lost endorsements after fabricating a story about being robbed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Similarly, former US Women’s National Team goalkeeper, Hope Solo, faced suspension and lost sponsorships after calling the Swedish soccer team “cowards”, following the U.S. team’s loss at the 2016 Olympics. 

When public relations is mentioned, the first thing that comes to the mind of many is deception through whitewashing. But this definition is misleading. Public relations (PR) in sports is the strategic management of communication between an organisation or brand — in this case, an athlete — and its various stakeholders, which include the public, media, investors and fans. It involves a wide range of activities and tactics designed to build and maintain a positive reputation, enhance brand awareness, manage crises effectively, and foster positivity with the specific audience. 

For elite African athletes across all sporting faucets, the need for proficient PR teams and public relations in general cannot be overstated.  It goes beyond working to enhance and maintain their public image but also to manage and mitigate the fallout from any public relations missteps that could potentially occur or already have. So what exactly are the intricacies public relations teams handle and why does a professional athlete need one? 

The first and most obvious is image management and protection. They craft and maintain a positive public image for the athlete by swaying or keeping public perception of the player in the exact light that suits the athlete’s career. This involves everything from managing social media accounts to ensuring favourable press coverage. This is also interwoven into every other activity they cover.  

Crisis management is also a key area that public relations teams handle for athletes. In times of controversy or scandal, PR teams develop strategies to protect the athlete’s reputation by drafting and issuing unified public statements that represent the best interests of their client. This is a very important part of things and the role, as most times while a point may be valid, the means through which it is communicated can alter the way it is interpreted. 

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In a crisis, most athletes do not have the best way to convey their message across. When an athlete’s intentions are good but their communication is poor, the public perceives it negatively due to the way it’s presented. In Osimhen’s situation, a public relations management would verify the information to find out its authenticity before putting out a statement that states the stance of their client. 

Every athlete is a brand. The bigger the athlete, the bigger the brand. At some point, it becomes impossible to manage the details as the brand grows significantly. At this stage, the athlete will need experts to develop their brand in a way that would align with sponsorship opportunities and endorsements, and prepare them for life after competing.

African athletes often represent not only themselves but also their countries and the continent on the global stage. In an age where social media can make or break careers, understanding the media landscape is crucial. This is where public relations teams come in to help athletes navigate the terrain, by guiding how and when to engage with public comments, and whether or not to respond to both praise and criticism. 

African athletes often face unique cultural challenges because most are not based in the regions where they grew up. PR teams can provide the necessary sensitivity and understanding to handle these issues, ensuring that athletes’ actions and statements are appropriate and respectful across different cultural contexts, especially that of their hosts.

For African elite athletes, the stakes are higher, both on and off the field. To level the playing surface amongst themselves and their peers in media relations, it is necessary to have a proficient PR team that is indispensable in managing their public image, handling crises, and building a strong, marketable brand.  At the end of the day, there’s only so much a public relations team can do. So athletes who value their careers will have to make the job easier for whoever handles it for them, as that will in turn make the life of each party better.

Tuka Letura is an experienced sports writer with over five years of experience in the craft. He uses data and statistics to provide analysis and commentary. From regional to worldwide competitions, he has covered a wide range of sports-related events and topics. He is devoted to sharing his enthusiasm for sports with his audience and engaging them with interesting anecdotes and viewpoints.

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