In football news Aston Villa have been relegated. They’re either one of the biggest teams in English football… or a delusional outfit who’ve won little since Queen Victoria threw a seven. It’s been quite a season dogged by PR blunders off the pitch and inept performances on it. But what does it teach comms people?
By Dan Slee
Sometimes it’s tempting to say that better PR can make up for anything… but that’s just a big fat lie.
Take Aston Villa Football Club. They’re a team that has just been relegated from the top flight of English football with four games of the season left.
This was the football equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade only with none of the honour, heroism and poetry. This was not a rush towards the Russian guns with lightly armed horses to maintain a reputation. This was a dash towards a brick wall in an ice cream van. Driven by a bloke in a circus clown’s outfit. Blunders to the left of them, fowl-ups to the right. Into the valley of PR nightmares they rode.
It’s tempting to feel truly sorry for the actual PR team at Aston Villa who have had to all too often pick-up the pieces. How much of a thankless task must that be?
However, in the interests in learning from failure, here are some lessons.
You cannot polish a turd
Yes, PR can do much. But if the product is broken all the PR and comms in the world can’t make up for it. If the owner isn’t interested and a string of bad appointments have been made there really is very little you can do.
I’m reminded of Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me PR is Dead.’ His advice to a burger chain facing flak for excrement traces in their burgers was not to talk about the community grants they gave and corporate social responsibility. It was to stop putting crap in the burgers.
Speak truth to power
Of course, what you say may not always be welcome. But honest, diplomatic feedback of what your customers are saying should be given house room. If the customers are angry about something it’s as well to know early. You won’t be welcomed in the short term, but speaking truth to power is a role of the comms person.
What happens on a night out...stays on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube
Aston Villa players carved out a special place for themselves through the season by being spotted ‘tired and emotional’ in a range of places. Jack Grealish started the trend pre-season in Tenerife. He then added Manchester to the list after losing to Everton.
Know how to spell
Eyebrows were raised when Frenchman Remi Garde was plucked from the French league to become the man who was going to save Aston Villa from a spiral of despair. In fine tradition the club took to the internet to orchestrate a welcome campaign. #welcomeremy the image on the club website read. Perfect. But his name was spelt wrong. It was Remi.
Know when to be humble
Defender Joleon Lescott has got very rich playing football for a number of clubs including Manchester City. A player who has won a handful of caps for England he has cashed in on the Premier League era. But after losing and getting abuse on Twitter he responded by tweeting a picture of his new car. Then he hurriedly deleted the car and blamed the fact that his pocket had accidentally tweeted the image.
Beware the corporate re-branding
Of course, a new look can breathe life into a new brand. But when the chips are down it can lead to criticism. You have taken your eye off the ball looking at fancy marketing stuff when you should be looking at the basics. Like winning games. Unfair? Perhaps. But perception is everything. So when Villa rebranded for £80,000 losing the traditional motto ‘Prepared’ from the badge they were open to criticism. Especially as they looked so unprepared losing every week.
Follow back… don’t unfollow
On social media, it costs nothing to follow someone back. On a basic level it says that you have been recognised even if your content isn’t slavishly being read. So as a time of the season when Villa needed all the friends they could mass unfollowing 47,000 fans on Twitter wasn’t the best thing to do. The reaction was not positive. Don’t do it.
There is no such thing as off-the-record
With Aston Villa relegated former player and radio phone-in host Stan Collymore laid into some of the more under-achieving players. Singling out Joleon Lescott the car tweeting defender responded by Twitter direct message privately offering to meet and sort things out as men. The screen grab was then tweeted by Collymore.
Say sorry… and mean it.
As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford and Villa were relegated the chief executive Steve Hollis posted an open letter to supporters. It expressed ‘regret’ for how the season panned out and was an exercise in acknowledging responsibility. As an attempt, it was good. No doubt he was hurting. But it would have been far more effective if the word ‘sorry’ had been used.
In the Middle Ages, stocks were used for public contrition. The miscreant was forced to sit there while rotten tomatoes and excrement was flung at them. There’s actually a social role for this. There’s also a place where this takes place today. It’s called the radio phone in. A grovelling apology by the owner on BBC Radio WM may go some way to healing the rift.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.