It’s a funny old game, but could football clubs learn something about communicating from their local councils?
by Simon Alton
Football is the biggest sport on the planet, with millions of us spending an awful lot of time and money following our club - whether it’s going to a game, watching it on TV or (as in my case) following updates on Twitter while keeping half an eye on the kids in the park on a Saturday afternoon.
The level of loyalty football fans show to their clubs is unequivocal and unlike any other brand/customer relationship. The vast majority of supporters would never dream of going to support another club if they were unsatisfied with the way their club was performing. It’s just not the done thing.
So with the kind of brand loyalty that most companies - and councils and other public sector organisations in particular - could only dream of, do football clubs really need to care about PR and how they communicate with their fans?
Frankly, yes. And a couple of unbelievable own goals (pardon the pun) regarding media relations by two major clubs in recent months demonstrate why.
And it got me thinking that these big glamourous football clubs could learn a thing or two from how we in the public sector manage our media relations despite constant challenge and often negative coverage.
Let me explain.
Newcastle United have just banned their local paper from attending any games or press conferences because - shock, horror - it reported that some fans were unhappy with the way the club was being run.
The club explained in a letter - which of course the paper published in full - that it was “frankly staggered” that so much coverage should be dedicated to a recent protest march against the club’s owner.
The march was only attended by a couple of hundred people, so should not have resulted in the total of 15 pages of coverage it generated over almost two months, the club angrily pointed out.
Why don’t you devote so many pages to our lovely positive community work, the club’s head of media implored.
Erm… yes, well. That’s not very likely really is it? The old cliche that bad news sells isn’t a cliche for nothing.
Another example is my club, Nottingham Forest. They are not allowing their local paper to interview any players or staff, and have banned The Guardian’s chief football writer for alleged trivial reasons I don’t have space to go into here - but it’s playground stuff.
Now I’ll have to declare an interest here - I started out as a journalist so you could argue I’m a bit biased. But I’ve been working in council communications for longer than I was a journalist so I’d like to think I’ve got a balanced viewpoint.
I now do some part-time freelance work for a PR company in the private sector, and whether you’re doing the PR for a local photographer, a council or football club, the underlying principle is the same: it’s ultimately about presenting the best possible image to the consumer.
But when you’re doing this through the mainstream media you have to remember the following basic rules:
● You don’t control the press
● They’re not there to peddle your PR messages without questioning them
● They need to sell newspapers/gain listeners/attract viewers
As a communications professional, the game is to get your message out there while safely negotiating these potential pitfalls.
Now all councils have similar gripes with our local press just as Newcastle United and Forest have - negative issues always get much more coverage than positive stuff.
It’s the way it is, and the way it always will be.
But that’s not to say we don’t challenge, of course we do. And we work hard to ensure that our positive messages get the best coverage they can by inviting reporters in to talk to people or visit projects.
It’s about playing the long game and accepting that a protest march threatening the future ownership of a football club is going to sell more papers than a nice fluffy story about footballers teaching disadvantaged kids how to take penalties.
You need to play the game, not throw your toys out of the pram.
For the life of me, I just can’t see how banning journalists can possibly result in more positive coverage.
Indeed, since the bans, the Newcastle and Nottingham press have published story after story about them. Football pundits and fans are debating why their clubs are reacting to the media in such a heavy-handed way rather than talking tactics for the next game.
With Nottingham Forest in particular, their very strong start to the season was overshadowed by talk of the poor media relations and conspiracy theories about the way the club was being run. Not exactly a positive outcome for the team.
So despite the less glamorous subject matter, a fraction of the budget, and fewer stellar signings, maybe the public sector could teach some football clubs a thing or two after all.