Peter Harvey: 'In terms of PR and justice Liverpool FC got the Luis Suarez affair wrong from the start'
For a football club that holds justice and fairness so close to its heart, it is remarkable that Liverpool FC has allowed itself to become so closely associated with racism thanks to the 'Suarez affair.'
The club's reluctance or inability to fix a relatively simple PR issue four months ago has created a spiraling, toxic mess of the club's own making.
Suarez's pre-meditated refusal to shake Manchester United player Patrice Evra's hand at the start of Saturday's league match at Old Trafford took the depressing episode to its lowest ebb, securing media coverage that any football club would pay millions to avoid.
His apology 24 hours later accompanied by Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre's unequivocal criticism of the player is hopefully the start of a journey back for Liverpool's tarnished reputation.
Two housekeeping matters should perhaps be addressed at the outset:
1, There is no evidence that Liverpool FC, its players, staff or supporters in general are racist. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that they are not.
2, There is a saying that 'it is easier to be wise for others than ourselves' and, of course, even easier to be wise after the event.
When Luis Suarez joined Liverpool from Dutch club Ajax in January 2011 for £22.8m (at the time Liverpool's record signing) he arrived with baggage. Plenty of it. There was notoriety from his deliberate goal line handball at the 2010 World Cup for Uruguay which denied Ghana a place in the semi-final.
His volatile, arguably aggressive temperament on the pitch, had culminated in him biting an opponent in a league match in late 2010. The 'Cannibal of Ajax,' as dubbed by Dutch daily paper De Telegraaf, was serving a seven-match ban for the offence when he signed for Liverpool.
Despite his apparent liking for flare-ups and flesh, Suarez is one of the most gifted, creative players in the Premier League. SoccerBlog.com writer Shourin Roy aptly described Suarez as a 'sublime forward with a backward attitude.'
Liverpool knew what they were getting with Suarez. It was not a question of 'if' the Suarez timebomb blew, only when. The PR task facing Liverpool was to prepare for it, and when it went off to act swiftly, positively and decisively to limit collateral damage.
Media or PR crisis management is all about positioning yourself well from the start. Get it wrong with your first move, as Liverpool FC did in this case, and you can do some serious damage to your reputation.
The moment Liverpool striker Suarez confirmed his use of the word 'negro' in the angry exchange with Evra on October 15th last year - a direct and unambiguous reference to Evra's skin colour - an apology from Liverpool FC and the player was essential.
The subsequent TV evidence of Suarez pinching Evra's skin compounded what was already an ugly situation. Whether Suarez intended to hurt Evra with his actions or words is not relevant. Focus only needed to be paid to whether his language was capable of offence. It is hard to argue that it was not.
An immediate statement from the club should have:
-Apologised for any offence caused to Patrice Evra and others, stating that LFC did not believe offence was intended
-Stated that the club did not believe Suarez is racist, that he had the support of colleagues and that a cultural misunderstanding may lie behind the incident
-Re-iterated the club's commitment to 'kicking out' racism from football in conjunction with other relevant organisations
That may well have satisfied the FA and have been an end to the matter.
Instead, the club's subsequent refusal to recognise any wrongdoing (a line continually reinforced by Suarez and loyal manager Kenny Dalglish), portraying Suarez as a victim of injustice notably during the infamous T-shirt stunt at Wigan in December, simply created an unfortunate and misleading perception that Liverpool FC condoned racism.
Although the evidence against Suarez was always flimsy, his own defence was even flimsier if not at times 'unsustainable and simply incredible' as the independent FA inquiry ruled. The club was always in an unwinnable position.
Following widespread and growing criticism of their club's handling of this undignified saga, it appears that Liverpool's owners Tom Werner and John W. Henry (Fenway Sports Group) finally agreed to act decisively on Sunday (February 12th) to protect their global brand.
Clearly concerned by headlines and that Suarez appeared to be out of control after he gave manager Dalglish an assurance that he would shake hands with Evra, an apology from Suarez was arranged and a robust and clear statement was issued by Ian Ayre.
This deals with the immediate crisis. In the long term, Sir Alex Ferguson's claim that he would 'get rid of' Suarez because of the harm being caused to Liverpool's reputation will give the American owners food for thought. And, as Fernando Torres and Roy Hodgson know, they have form when it comes to taking such decisions.
• PR and media consultant Peter Harvey is a Liverpool fan and a former journalist with the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo. Follow Peter on Twitter HERE.