Ever since the Frank Lampard situation devolved into fiasco and farce, we've been waiting to hear from someone -- anyone! -- in a position of responsibility. To recap: on New Year's Eve, with only hours before his loan to Manchester City expired, we discovered that, contrary to all appearances, Lampard had never signed with New York City FC.
He was, it turned out, a Manchester City player.
The anger -- from all corners -- was palpable. City Football Group had lied to the fans of New York when they announced Lampard as the team's second Designated Player and, presumably, the face of the franchise.
Sunday, Don Garber tried to quell the gathering storm in an interview with SI's Grant Wahl. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't effective.
I'll have a more considered take tomorrow; tonight, I'll parse Garber's words from my perspective as a PR professional who's dealt with crisis communications. Let's roll. I'll quote Garber, and intersperse my commentary. Any emphasis is added.
"I could understand why their fans are unhappy, and I do believe [NYCFC] will work hard to build back that trust," Garber told SI.com from Florida on Saturday night. "They’ve started that process already. I sensed this was coming, and it didn’t surprise me when they ultimately made their decision. You’re dealing with a very unusual set of circumstances. Frank has become one of the most important players in Man City’s season, and he’s scored critical goals to have them tied for first place in the Premier League.
I'm glad Garber "understands" why fans are unhappy, but as you'll see from his other quotes, he really doesn't. From a crisis PR perspective, it's usually not a good idea to tell people that you "understand" why they're upset. It comes off as condescending and trivializing of people's justified anger.
New York City has not, in fact, "started that process already". I've seen brick walls that were more communicative than the team has been throughout its existence. The club is infamous for brushing away press inquiries, and for their communications being opaque, at best.
Since news of the scandal broke, the team has not communicated -- at all. The only response from New York City has been a lackluster statement from sporting director Claudio Reyna. So I'm unclear what Garber is referring to when he says New York City has started that process already.
For all that everyone "sensed this was coming", the club and ownership did an absolutely catastrophic job of laying the groundwork to prepare fans for this. Here's what they did:
Right: nothing. They did nothing to prepare fans, season ticket holders, members of the press, or anyone else, for this. In fact, they lied through their bloody teeth. Is there any reason to wonder why everyone is pissed at them, then? From my experience in PR, an "unusual set of circumstances" deserves an extraordinary level of care. They should've been laying the groundwork for this weeks, if not months ago.
Instead, the only person who commented on the matter was Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, whose statements were vague at best. No one else seemed to think that this set of "unusual circumstances" were worth planning or even thinking about. They instead planned for this the way drunk freshmen pledges from Beta Theta try to heist the school mascot -- i.e., not at all.
"They were faced with a difficult decision," added Garber, who said he’s been in touch with Man City CEO Ferran Soriano several times in recent days. "I’m going to be supportive of all our ownership groups, making them aware of my point of view. But we need to work hard now to move forward and recognize that Frank will be joining this team in July along with other Designated Players, who throughout the history of the Designated Player program have almost always joined in July. If there was an error in judgment on this, it was not just announcing that he would come in July and figuring out how to manage the start of the season, no different than what happened with Robbie Keane or Thierry Henry or David Beckham.
No, in fact, we don't need to "move forward", Don. We need to hold people responsible for lying to the fans of New York City and Major League Soccer and members of the press. When people lie to my face -- as they did here, repeatedly, mind you -- they're telling me they think I'm stupid.
I don't appreciate being told I'm stupid; I'm pretty sure you don't either, and neither do New York City fans. SO QUIT IT.
We also don't know that Lampard will be joining New York City in July. Pellegrini, who seems the only person in the entire City Football Group capable of human speech, is now hinting that Lampard could stay with Manchester City next season. Gee, sound familiar? Given that City Football Group has been lying profusely throughout this entire sorry episode, is there any reason to treat anything they say with validity?
"If there was an error in judgment on this..."
Sweet jumping Christ in a hoverboard...No. No. NO. Here's the error of judgment:
They lied in July, they lied in August; they lied in September, they lied in October, in November, and as the snows fell in December, there they were, trying to snow everyone and anyone. It wasn't until they were forced to divulge Lampard's true status as a Manchester City player that the truth came out. Not willingly; in the most reluctant and foot-dragging of ways.
For a PR professional -- which Garber is -- this was tone deaf. It refuses to acknowledge the real crime that took place here.
We are taught, by both our moral teachers and legal ones, that justice and restitution can only come when the reality and depth of the crime is acknowledged; that we can only move forward once that's taken place. Until everyone -- City Football Group and the league -- acknowledges that people lied, and people are held accountable, no one can move forward.
"I think it’s important to say this: These guys [NYCFC] are very committed to MLS and committed to New York … They have made an unprecedented investment in MLS and New York City, and they are going to continue to do so."
Really? Could've fooled me. Or everyone else, for that matter.
I'll give them the David Villa signing. But beyond that, they really haven't demonstrated that commitment. The commitment they've demonstrated is rather to their brand. And that's fine; it really is. No one can begrudge them that.
But starting with the jersey reveal and culminating with their rampant lying over Frank Lampard's situation, they haven't shown much of a commitment, if any, to New York City and MLS. That doesn't speak well for the future.
And their "unprecedented" investment? It's no more than what LAFC's owners have invested.
When asked if he's uncomfortable with the idea that NYCFC is a farm team for Man City, Garber said: "I don't think it is a farm team for Man City. With this decision, while I can understand people will try to think that, the level of investment that this ownership group is making with the club is massive, and it rivals some of the bigger clubs around the world. This kind of decision is not something in my view that in any way says this is a farm team for Man City. I don't believe in all my dealings with them that they have led us to believe that's true."
Seriously? Because between the home jerseys that look just like Manchester City's and the fact that they've yet to make a decision that helps New York City while hurting Manchester City, New York City is acting just like a farm team.
Also, the level of investment is not massive. Real Madrid spent more on signing Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, separately, than City Football Group has on the entire team. Maybe Garber's individual dealings haven't led him to believe that. Ferran Soriano's a nice guy. I met him at the Frank Lampard signing...where they lied to all of us in broad daylight.
The biggest rule of crisis communications: transparency and the truth are your best friends. You can't spin your way out of a disaster.
it's those dealings -- between Manchester City and New York City, and between CFG and MLS -- which belie all of Garber's statements here. Those dealings treat New York City as Man City USA. If he's too daft to acknowledge that, then it's probably time for a change in leadership.
Or: he could accept what we all now know to be true. They lied, Don. No carefully-spun words can change that reality. They lied, and they're treating New York City as, yes, a farm team. They will not make a decision that benefits New York City FC if it harms in any way, shape, or form Manchester City.
If New York City wasn't a farm team, then Lampard would be well on his way to Gotham by now. That he isn't, and may never be, is all the proof everyone needs of NYC's subsidiarity.