Ah, the Premier League. It's all about the top four and the £50 million signing, isn't it? Actually, no. Unglamorous Leicester City's striker Jamie Vardy scored in 11 consecutive matches to equal a top flight record that had stood since the 1930s. And he can teach comms people lots.
by Eva Duffy
Leicester City footballer Jamie Vardy ends 2015 having made history by becoming the first Premier League player to score in 11 consecutive games.
The 28-year-old striker’s backstory is one of slowburning graft from non-league football to the Premier League and his first England cap at an age when most professionals in the beautiful game are planning their exit strategy via a coaching qualification, semi-retirement in America or a career in televised banter. So what can we in the communication sector learn from the Foxes’ record-breaking golden boy?
It's not always absolutely fabulous, darling
We just love it when communications is fabulous, don't we? That killer tag line that came to you in a eureka moment when you were on the tenth re-watching of the toddler’s favourite film. The high five from your colleagues when you killed that story with the negotiation skills of a United Nations diplomat. The crisis situation that you nailed thanks to your well-honed crisis comms reflexes. And while they don’t result in a big-screen slow-motion replay, they are nevertheless our goal-scoring moments.
But as Vardy’s work rate testifies, it takes a lot of hard work to be fabulous. Sure, if you’re great at your job, you can create the impression that creativity and expert delivery are effortless. You can even make it look glamorous. But behind Vardy's ten-second bursts of tactical goalscoring genius are 90 minutes of relentless ball pursuit – he’s reportedly clocked the fastest speed on a Premier League pitch this season – and likewise the chances of everything coming together beautifully in a tactical masterstroke of communications excellence are a lot more likely if you’ve put the work in. You’ve evaluated your organisational need, you’ve segmented your audience, you’ve identified your key messages and you’ve mapped your comms channels. Because behind that iconic piece of artwork is a sound communications plan. And alongside the jazz-hands delivery of that multi-agency campaign, there's scores of bread-and-butter media enquiries and no-you-don't-need-a-logo-for-your-new-project conversations to keep you grounded.
It takes more than a collection of great individuals to make a great team
Leicester City FC are league leaders not because they prevent opposition teams from scoring goals. A clean sheet at a Leicester game is about as rare as a positive newspaper article about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They’re league leaders because the rest of the Premier League hasn’t yet devised a strategy to successfully deal with their counter-attack. Time and time again, Vardy’s speed is Leicester’s get-out-of-jail card.
So what happens when you take the county’s most exciting talent and give him his first call-up to the England squad, dropping him into a more pressured environment led by a manager with a very different tactical style? Vardy's performances in an England jersey have been resoundingly underwhelming with little evidence of the talent that’s made him a Premier League Golden Boot contender.
And therein lays England manager Roy Hodgson’s predicament: do you shape a team and stick to it intransigently, knowing that this year’s Vardy is last year’s Harry Kane and there’s always fresh talent waiting in the wings?
In his England role, Vardy’s wings are clipped, proving beyond doubt that all the potential in the world will come to nothing in the wrong setting. Creativity, whether it’s on a football pitch or in a communication team, needs time and space. But most importantly, it needs freedom: the freedom to explore what happens if you try something different; the freedom to be innovative; the freedom to fail, knowing your team has your back; and the freedom to learn from it all and start again, a little bit wiser but just as audacious - because a collection of talented individuals does not make a great team if they aren't given the freedom to play to their strengths.
Less is more …
If there exists a football sector communications awards scheme, then I want to be the first in line to nominate the King Power press office in the reputation management category for their admirable handling of a year’s worth of firefighting.
When video footage emerged in the summer which seemed to implicate Vardy in a drunken casino rant with racist undertones, the club responded with a damage limitation masterclass. A convincing apology from the player and the club’s announcement that Vardy had been “reminded of his responsibilities” alongside a “substantial” fine to be donated to local charities drew an undisputed line under the affair.
I have to own up to something of a conflict of interest on this particular point because I predicted to the tune of a £20 bet that Vardy wouldn’t cope with the international media attention he was generating in his first season in top-flight football and that before the end of the season, he would incur a fine, a match ban or an arrest. Unfortunately for me, when he did finally transgress, it was during the summer break so my wager was deemed invalid.
Dealing with the Vardy incident was the latest in an extremely taxing period for the club’s communications team which included, but by no means limited to: then-manager Nigel Pearson telling a fan to "f*** off and die"; his sideline throttling of an opposition player; a press conference showdown between Pearson and the self-appointed spokesman for the Midlands’ press corps, BBC reporter Pat Murphy; and a racist sex tape scandal which saw the club move calmly but swiftly to sack three players including Pearson’s son.
Throughout it all, the club’s media team nailed the art of the dignified silence, no mean feat in an industry with more leaks than a group of postnatal women in a pepper factory, and a sure testament to the loyalty of players and staff.
Each man kills the thing he loves: death by media training
I have to admit that I feel a bit mean in citing Jamie Vardy’s post-match interview skills as a learning point given my overall admiration for the work of Leicester City’s comms team. After all, nobody really expects footballers to be articulate - but as the striker himself pointed out far more concisely than I ever could, if you chat shit you will get banged.
So, picture the scene: 3.24pm on Saturday 28th November and Jamie Vardy hits the back of the Manchester United net to make history as the first player to score in eleven consecutive matches. The pent-up tension explodes as he runs, beating his chest and roaring: “Me. Me. F**king me." Fast forward to the immediate post-match interview and any hopes of seeing just how much this means to him are quashed as Vardy gives the impression of having downloaded a sports cliché generator. "I think we've put in a very good shift here today and the point was probably a fair result … just another game that we wanted to get three points out of.”
Is there any area of life other than football where you take somebody who’s achieved a career high in a job they are passionate about and make them sound so soporifically boring? And this is a perfect example of why I’m not a huge fan of media training.
A whole industry has grown up around the notion that people shouldn’t be let anywhere near a microphone until they’ve learned how to achieve complete vanilla blandness when answering questions. “But I haven’t been media trained!” is a reaction every seasoned press officer will have encountered at some point – to which the only correct answer in my opinion is “But do you know what you’re talking about?” It’s when the answer to that question is no that you have to start worrying – and when you’ve worked in political comms for over a decade, that scenario is not unprecedented!
The best interviews are the ones where people know and love their subject matter: whether it’s a trading standards officer explaining why a successful prosecution is a victory for consumers; a nurse describing why great end-of-life care is just as important as making people better and sending them on their way; or a headteacher talking about a school’s new reading programme for five year olds. The job of a communications professional is not to train interviewees to sound rehearsed and guarded but to give them permission to be themselves. Although in Jamie Vardy’s case, we’ll just have to let his feet do the talking.
In the interests of transparency, I should point out that I’m neither a LCFC nor England supporter. I am a Premier League neutral and my national allegiance lies with world-champions-beating Republic of Ireland.
Eva Duffy is senior communications officer at Northampton General Hospital.