Walsh’s return to act as McLachlan’s main media handler – he will have oversight of the government relations portfolio as well – was a clear recognition from the AFL chief executive that he had suffered too many public relations dents in the course of a difficult 2019, and that he sorely needed someone with the necessary experience and relationships to shepherd him and his administration through Gillon’s own “final quarter” in the job.
The messy handling of the fan behaviour and ground security – and the lack of clear messaging around that difficult terrain – was probably the nadir for McLachlan in terms of the perceptions outside the walls.
The Adam Goodes documentaries were another vexed issue, as the AFL and various people within HQ and clubs were forced to make a giant mea culpa, as the scale of Goodes’ isolation and suffering became apparent to a vast non-football audience.
McLachlan requires advisers who dispense frank advice rather than what they think the boss wants to hear.
The AFL and its boss had lost thousands of games of experience in the PR domain when the most senior communications/media executives, Liz Lukin and Patrick Keane, stepped down and took on a new role respectively, with Lukin staying on as a consultant while Keane replaced the sage figure of the late Tony Peek as the executive assisting McLachlan.
As part of the reshuffle, Jude Donnelly, a former Liberal Party staffer with connections to the Morrison government, moves from corporate social responsibility and community back to manager of government relations (reporting to Walsh).
The return of Walsh is comparable to prime minister John Howard bringing his long-time advisor and chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos back (which Howard never did), or to the Bushes getting their trusted family consigliere James Baker to lend a hand to George W.
If those analogies seem excessive, the AFL chief executive’s public profile has grown to the point that it’s almost on the level of a state premier. It is a political position and requires advisers, who, as Howard said of Sinodinos, dispense frank advice rather than what they think the boss wants to hear.
AFL chiefs are never popular, no matter what they do, because the organisation is viewed negatively by the same fans who have such unconditional love of clubs and players.
So if one executive was brought back, not exactly from the cold (Walsh will step down from North’s board shortly, having more or less finished his review work), the hiring of Dr Katie Hall (head of mental health and wellbeing) and Dr Ranjit Menon (chief psychiatrist) are about the league getting their head around the complexities of mental health and producing better outcomes, particularly for players.
Chief psychiatrist, Dr Menon, will play a role in navigating the overlapping problems of mental health, gambling and illicit drugs, as the league seeks to bring those issues under one umbrella, with Hall heading the whole portfolio.
While these two experts will mostly work privately and behind the scenes – Menon has actually treated players with drug issues in the past – it would be helpful to the game if they’re given the opportunity to educate the public about mental health, gambling and drugs, for there is no shortage of cynicism and ignorance about those subjects.