Category Archives: Public Relations

Head to head – Is content creation creating competition between clubs and the press?

After recent events at Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and Port Vale you could be forgiven for thinking football clubs have lost the plot.

For a long time clubs and their local newspapers have been locked in a mutually beneficial if not always entirely comfortable relationship. The very definition of you scratch my back, I scratch yours.

However nowadays orders are being handed down from the boardroom to ban journalists for perceived indiscretions, no matter how minor, on an alarmingly regular basis. It’s easy to ascribe these decisions to touchy owners but could there be something beyond that which is straining the relationship between the two parties?

Nottingham Forest City Ground

Forest have limited the access that the media have to the club this season

While reports of the death of local media have been exaggerated it’s no secret that the landscape is changing. Budgets are being cut and newsrooms are shrinking. Compare that with football, where every new TV deal pumps yet more money into the game. The big sides have never been richer and they’re branching out. They’re creating content.

The club website is no longer just a portal for the latest injury news and match reports. Money is being invested in media teams. The ease at which video and audio can be produced has resulted in clubs launching their own online TV channels, streaming live commentary and producing their own apps to bring fans closer to the game.

Clubs are no longer reliant on traditional media channels to connect with supporters. Clubs can not only tell stakeholders what is going on but they can exert more control over their messages by cutting out the middle man.

Reacting to criticism about Nottingham Forest’s decision to limit the amount of access the local press has to the club, Media and Communications Manager Ben White said: “We have a media team of our own who are fully focused on keeping fans updated.” In other words, we don’t need the local press because we’re quite capable of telling the fans what’s happening ourselves.

I ask again, are these bans simply about punishing unruly hacks or are they about something more? Are they about competition?

If clubs turn content creators where does that leave the press?

The moment that clubs begin to produce their own content they come into conflict with the local press. They’re competing for readers and, more importantly, revenue. Traditional media outlets can draw supporters away from visiting official channels, thus depriving clubs of the opportunity to monetise these followers with cannily placed adverts for match tickets or the latest replica shirt. It’s no surprise that some owners feel charging journalists for access is the way forward.

In reality this battle is nothing new. Teams have long had designs on breaking into traditional media. The matchday programme is ever-present outside stadiums across the country, many clubs have attempted to produce their own magazines with varying degrees of success and some even have their own satellite TV channels  that cater for the most ardent fans.

None of these types of media are as pervasive, affordable or accessible as the internet and at no point in the past have regional media outlets been so vulnerable.

This is an opportunity that clubs will have to seize upon but as they turn content creators where does that leave the local football hack they’ve shown so much contempt for?

Banning journalists – what does it achieve?

This past weekend has brought news of football journalists finding themselves barred from doing their job.

Why?

For doing their job.

On Sunday after Newcastle’s defeat to Sunderland journalists from three local newspapers were stopped from asking questions of manager Alan Pardew.

The ban came about after coverage of a protest march in the Journal, the Chronicle and the Sunday Sun.

Coverage of Time 4 Change resulted in three local papers getting banned

This is nothing new. Sir Alex Ferguson dished out a number of bans to journalists and blanked the BBC for seven years, however more and more clubs are now seeking to strong-arm the press into censoring their own coverage.

The proliferation of this particular type of press control suggests that clubs must be reaping the rewards for hammering journalists whenever they step out of line, but is that really the case?

Newcastle United have previously banned the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph for their reporting. Neither newspaper has suffered or changed tact. The club and those in charge are still criticised when bad decisions are made.

Local newspapers have more pages to fill and as a result more to lose, however Newcastle United is not a particularly accessible football club even when you’re in their good books. Now the club have slammed the door in the face of NCJ Media they’ve given them free reign to go to town on them.

If they thought the coverage of the march was disproportionate they’re in for a shock.

So if banning journalists doesn’t work why go down the route of the playground bully.

Simple. They don’t know any better.

This is not an idea formulated by anyone in the club’s press office, or anyone with the most basic understanding of media relations for that matter. Wendy Taylor’s name may be on the bottom of the polemic fired out to the three publications in question, but I’d speculate that was the sum total of her involvement. Football clubs are autocratic institutions. Whatever the person at the top says goes.

In banning the local press Mike Ashley isn’t just showing a contempt for journalism but contempt for the club’s media team and demonstrating why once again Newcastle United are a living advert for employing someone with public relations expertise at a boardroom level.

Not that he’d listen to them.

Right Behind Gay Footballers gets fans talking

When Paddy Power’s marketing team attack any subject controversy is never too far away. The announcement that they’d teamed up with leading gay rights charity Stonewall for an anti-homophobia campaign was no different.

According to Paddy Power’s website Right Behind Gay Footballers is “designed to kickstart a fundamental change in attitude” within the game. Players from all 134 professional teams in the United Kingdom have been challenged to show their support for gay footballers by wearing specially supplied rainbow laces during this weekend’s fixtures.

Unsurprisingly much of the consternation lies in the name, with the bookmaker accused of trivialising homophobia by adopting such a crude slogan.

Paddy Power Right Behind Gay Footballers

So, have Paddy Power backed a winner or have they spectacularly misjudged the mood?

The choice of name is a deliberately provocative one but it works. It’s in line with Paddy Power’s fun, fair and friendly brand values while adding to the mischief-maker persona the organisation has worked so hard to cultivate. Rather than adopt a more tactful approach, which may turn their core audiences off, they’ve stuck to using the language they know garners a response.

And guess what? The audience has responded. Since the campaign hit the headlines on Sunday there have been over 24,000 mentions of #RBGF on Twitter, a figure you can expect to increase several times over as supporters play spot the rainbow laces this coming weekend.

As well as the backing of Stonewall, garnering the support of stars like Joey Barton and David Meyler (along with a host of other celebrities) very early on has also given a credibility to RBGF that would’ve been sorely lacking had Paddy Power launched it without any name players associated. Faces lend a legitimacy to the campaign.

The debate about the appropriateness of the slogan will continue, however I get the feeling the success of this campaign is already assured.

Director of Football? Newcastle need a Director of Communications

So that’s that then. Joe Kinnear is Newcastle United’s new Director of Football and the word ‘crisis’ is yet again being chucked around to describe another episode of high farce that has unfolded on Tyneside. A fair assessment?

I’d say so. Not only is it a crisis, but it’s one completely of Newcastle United’s own making. Employing the unemployable is bad enough, and I’m sure there’ll be chapter and verse written on that subject by people far more qualified to comment than I, but the sound of silence has inflamed a delicate situation.

Nature abhors a vacuum. A statement should’ve been forthcoming the moment Joe Kinnear decided to go on national TV to talk about his new role. Instead the fans and press were left to pick over every line of the interview.

joe kinnear newcastle united

A carefully worded statement wouldn’t have solved all the club’s woes. They would’ve still been in full damage limitation mode. Kinnear isn’t the most polished interviewee the world of football has ever seen, nor does he care much for facts. His record at press conferences during his first stint at Newcastle United should’ve served as fair warning and it should’ve been made clear to him that he wasn’t to talk to the press a) until the club announced the appointment and b) he was then only to do so through official channels/with the express consent of the club. Considering Joe did neither we can only assume these instructions were not conveyed.

By late Monday evening, after Kinnear’s second baffling interview with a national media outlet it was apparent the club had lost complete control not over only the message, but the man who cannot be relied to stay on-message! There was little the club could do to placate supporters or pretend this hadn’t been anything other than an unmitigated disaster. On Tuesday lunchtime, almost 48 hours after Kinnear’s first interview, a short statement was released confirming the appointment. As far as denouements go it wasn’t a particularly satisfying one for Newcastle United’s support.

joe kinnear swearing

A press officer’s nightmare

It must be said that I do not believe any fault lies with the club’s media team for this disaster. None at all. It’s apparent they were hamstrung, I assume by the hierarchical structure in which they’re expected to work, and simply unable to say anything until they’d had word from on high. Considering the deal was apparently done on Sunday afternoon such a delay suggests to me a lack of understanding of the role of public relations from those in charge.

If clubs can learn anything from this sorry saga it’s that they desperately need PR knowledge and representation at boardroom level. At no point over the past few days has any one of the decision makers stopped to think how this would be received by the fans, how to announce this decision or even whether letting their own employee loose on the media would cause further woe. The individuals who had the expertise to at least attempt to deal with this situation, the employees who had began to build bridges with fans that have since had petrol and a lit match chucked on them, were left in the dark.

Director of Football? How about a Director of Communications?

How could Newcastle United take advantage of #ColosParty?

On Wednesday night, while most UK football fans were watching and tweeting about Chelsea’s last gasp victory over Benfica in the Europa League final, a small corner of the country was tweeting relentlessly about a house party in Ponteland.

When Sammy Ameobi posted pictures on his Instagram account showing Newcastle United’s squad enjoying a night in at the Coloccini residence it was always going to generate a stir. Fans started tweeting about the photos using the hashtag #ColosParty and it soon went viral in a huge way. By 11pm it was the top trending topic in the UK, surpassing any mention of Chelsea’s win in Amsterdam.

Colos Party

Sorry Rafa, but we’re top of the league

Some of the tweets were kind, some were cruel but almost all were relentlessly funny and perfectly encapsulated the power and imagination of social media savvy football fans.

These moments aren’t uncommon in themselves but they’re transient. It’s rare a club have such a perfect opportunity to take advantage a movement for PR purposes and build bridges with its support at the same time, so when I saw the popularity of #ColosParty I started to think about ways Newcastle United could do just that.

The most obvious (and laziest) way for NUFC to get in on the #ColosParty action would be to slap the hashtag onto its regular tweets. There’s one problem with this – hijacking hashtags is not popular and the number of adverts the club sends out on social media is the main bugbear of NUFC’s fans. The club wading in and throwing out 2 for 1 offers on NUFC branded shot glasses, affixing #ColosParty to the end of their tweets, would backfire.

It became clear that to exploit this opportunity to the fullest the club would have to look offline. One particular idea stood out to me:

Rename Shearer’s Bar.

Shearer's BarDon’t worry, I don’t mean permanently, just for the final day of the season. Call it Colo’s Bar and after the Arsenal match invite supporters to attend an event called #ColosParty.

This stunt would work for a number of reasons – it’s cheap, it’d be easy to organise even at such short notice and the story would be guaranteed to generate column inches across the local and national press in addition to chatter on social media. It would also give the club a chance to pay tribute to those supporters which made #ColosParty the most talked about topic on Twitter for a short while and act as an opportunity to celebrate the NUFC career of a very popular player.

What would the benefit for the club be? Well, it would increase footfall in Shearer’s Bar on the day of the match while reinforcing the bar’s identity as the premier NUFC themed venue in the city. Furthermore it would show Newcastle’s commitment to listening to supporters on social media channels which is something that the club has so far struggled to do.

So, does Colo’s Bar sound like a good idea? Let me know below.

Is Sunderland’s statement an ill-judged piece of crisis management?

It’s past midday, so I think we have to assume that the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland’s new boss is not an elaborate April fool.

The news has sparked some pretty fierce reactions among fans and interested observers which is entirely understandable considering the man’s politics. You don’t need to be an expert in PR to know that employing a self-confessed fascist is going to raise a few eyebrows, however Sunderland seem to have been caught on the hop by the response. The club, clearly aggrieved that they’re now at the centre of a media circus, released a bizarre statement this afternoon detailing why they’re being harshly treated.

This appointment was always going to be terribly difficult to justify, however there was a real opportunity for Sunderland to take the heat out of the situation. For a start acknowledge the issue. Despite the club’s protestations that Di Canio’s position has been misrepresented he is famously on record saying that he is a fascist and was pictured several times performing a ‘Roman salute’ during his time at Lazio. Sunderland have committed the cardinal sin of crisis management – they haven’t got their facts right. As a result they’re completely discredited.

Paolo Di Canio salute

The scornful manner in which the press are referred to throughout is quite simply petulant. This is a story not borne out of media mischief, but the actions of Di Canio himself.

Furthermore the club have made it clear that they’ll not entertain any questions about the situation, finishing the statement with the following line:

“Neither Sunderland AFC, nor Paolo Di Canio, will make any further comment on this matter.”

Has ignoring the elephant in the room ever proven to be a sound public relations tactic? An unwillingness to engage on a particular topic will not make it go away, quite the opposite in fact. Warning journalists off asking about Di Canio’s fascist leanings may make sure his press conferences run a bit smoother but the club are sacrificing what little control they had over the issue. A dangerous decision.

Sunderland’s PR department had an unenviable task when they woke up this morning. Lancing this particular boil was always going to be difficult to do however a desire to ignore certain unhelpful facts mixed with a lack of preparedness and refusal to engage further has exacerbated the situation.

Are clubs and governing bodies ready for AR?

Technology is moving at a million miles a minute and as a result so is the impact that it has on the ability of organisations to engage stakeholders via mobile marketing tools. To many it hasn’t been long since they truly got their hands on and heads around social media however that’s no reason not to look forward and ready yourself for what’s on the horizon.

One of the most arresting developments is augmented reality.  While the technology is currently available and accessible its use is still relatively rare, however high profile developments such as Google Glass strongly suggest that AR is about to explode.

Google Glass

Google Glass is one of many AR centric projects in the pipeline

If there was one lesson that football clubs should’ve learnt from the rise of social media it’s that early experimentation with new platforms will allow them to produce better results sooner. Clubs need to be operating alongside their support, if not trailblazing, rather than playing catch up so that they can deliver exciting and imaginative content. The same is true of augmented reality and teams should take advantage of the fact that the match day routine of your average football supporter suggests they are perfectly placed to consume AR content.

Some clubs have already taken the plunge. For example augmented reality has given Manchester City fans the opportunity to get their hands on the FA Cup and the Premier League trophy. While it’s a commendable use of an emerging technology it does little to capture the imagination of how AR could be used by football clubs in future to further engage supporters and encourage them to take action. Getting fans to turn the camera lens away from themselves and towards their environment is where the real power of AR lies.

The ability to unlock information by pointing a viewfinder, whether that be on a smart phone or pair of AR ready glasses, at a physical object is being explored across the pond. NFL clubs have begun rewarding season pass holders with access to exclusive content such as interviews. Aim a phone at a ticket and watch it come to life. Closer to home The Jockey Club have implemented a similar idea to liven up their annual review.

Layar augmented reality

A vision of the future? How Dutch company Layar think AR might look.

How long before pointing your smart phone at a stadium will present you with the latest ticket news or the live score of a match in progress? Or targeting your phone at a player will furnish you with more statistics than you can shake a stick at (and the obligatory advertisement for the kit he’s clad in, obviously)? It can’t be far off and the game has got to be ready to react accordingly.

However being prepared must go beyond simply being ready to take advantage of the undoubted benefits that AR will bring. Clubs and the footballing authorities must be mindful of the wider impact that this technology will have on the game.

While social media has given fans in the stadium a broader view of the match experience, allowing them to gain expert opinion and watch replays while burning their tongue on their half-time Bovril, AR has the potential to take this to another level completely.

Mark Halsey Newcastle United

AR would mean referees have no where to hide when they make a mistake

How would an application that can overlay stats onto visuals in real time, such as whether a player is offside or whether the ball has crossed the goal line after a scramble in the six yard box, and then feed it into the eyes of those in the stands impact upon how matches are officiated? FIFA are understandably reticent to the idea of showing replays of contentious decisions during a match on big screens, however this policy could be rendered completely redundant by the emergence of AR. Having the fans better placed to referee a game than the man with the cards and whistle would be unworkable.

The full potential of AR is a good few years from being realised, however as the old adage goes failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Fans are now weighed down with technology when they enter a stadium and while it presents great opportunities, particularly for clubs to enhance the experience of supporters, the game will face challenges too.

Newcastle United fans have their say on club’s Twitter use

Newcastle United supporters – a passionate bunch

Luddites may disagree, but it’s pretty apparent that digital communications is now the front line when it comes to fan engagement for football clubs. The Premier League is a world wide brand and online means messages can be disseminated around the globe in an instant. Just look at the number of followers your typical Premier League side commands – many are well in excess of their average league attendance, with more supporters lurking elsewhere in the deep, dark bowels of the internet. It’s no real surprise that social media and how clubs use it to connect with stakeholders generates strong opinions from supporters.

Newcastle United have been using Twitter for a few years now and currently have around 200,000 followers, one of the largest numbers in the league. I asked supporters about the club’s use of the platform to find out whether they thought NUFC’s use of Twitter put them top of the table or that the club were involved in a basement battle.

Supporters were asked five simple questions – whether they followed the club, what they liked, what they disliked, what they wanted to see more of and what they wanted to see less of.

First off, of those fans who responded 25% didn’t officially ‘follow’ the official Twitter account. The main reason for this, mentioned by 61% of respondents, was the glut of marketing messages sent out by NUFC. It turns out that spammy and invasive tweeting will put off even the most ardent supporter.

@NUFCOfficial

This complaint was not simply restricted to those who have opted against following @NUFCOfficial. 84% of all respondents made reference to the use of the Twitter account as a vehicle for little more than adverts as one of their main dislikes of NUFC’s use of Twitter and it was a commented on frequently by those surveyed:

  • “Too many tweets about club shop offers”
  • “They just use it to sell stuff from the shop in the main. They never reply to genuine questions”
  • “The amount of tweets about selling items instead of news about the club”
  • Getting spammed by offers of merchandise from the club shop. The club shop should get a separate account”

Oh dear. It’s pretty apparent that the club’s policy of using Twitter to drive traffic and increase sales isn’t well liked and probably isn’t working either. 85% of fans said they wanted to see much less of it. But anyway, what about plus points?

To the surprise of no one, fans said they want to hear more about new signings.

When asked what they liked about the club’s Twitter almost 55% could muster an answer that wasn’t a variation on the word “nothing”. As you’d expect many of these responses focused on information that the club could publicise before anyone else, such as team line ups, signings and other breaking news:

  • “Team news on match day”
  • “Ticket announcements”
  • “Goal updates from matches are usually the quickest on Twitter”
  • “Picture galleries”

So it turns out there are a few redeeming features of the club’s Twitter use. However that cannot escape from the fact that the feeling among many supporters is that if engagement is the name of then game then the club’s presence is not fit for purpose. When pushed on what they’d like to see from the account an increase in interaction was at the top of the pile:

  • “More interaction with supporters. Better use of social media tools in general to connect with fans”
  • “Interaction with supporters. Greater innovation in terms of how it is used too. Twitter can be used for great things but Newcastle have not embraced it.”
  • “More interaction with fans”
  • “Fan engagement. A teeny tiny bit of opinion now and then and the odd exclusive signing pictures rather than having to pay for NUFC TV”

A nice, round 40% of respondents made some mention of increased engagement with supporters in some form or another. There was also a clear interest in more exclusive, behind the scenes content similar to Manchester City’s Inside City video series. Granted, that’s not strictly a comment on Twitter but it’s more proof that social media use must be coordinated cross platform.

I’ll leave the final word to one respondent who was pretty damning in his assessment of Newcastle’s use of the platform…

  • “They’ve totally missed the point of Twitter”

Keep your eyes peeled for a follow up post in which I’ll explore the ways Newcastle United can improve their use of social media.

Jen Chang’s threats are a PR own goal

On at least one occasion I’ve used this blog to prattle on about Liverpool FC’s brilliant use of social media. They, out of all of the Premier League clubs, seem to have understood what the medium is all about and more importantly what it was capable of.

‘perspiring journalist’ Duncan Jenkins

That’s why I was shocked to read the most recent post on the blog of fictional football journalist Duncan Jenkins. Jenkins, who is either a stunning take down of the growing crowd of wannabe football journalists that inhabit Twitter or a joke that got very boring very quickly depending on who you talk to (I’m in the latter camp), managed to call one or two of Liverpool’s incoming transfer deals on the back of existing press speculation. Given the litany of accounts which predict transfers, or at least try to, this was nothing unusual however the sheer popularity of the account meant Duncan’s predictions got much more coverage. This upset someone at Liverpool, namely their Director of Communications Jen Chang.

I’ll not go into detail about what happens next, however Mr Chang comes across like the lovechild of Magnum P.I. and Reggie Kray. Suffice to say the tale of what is essentially flat track bullying has spread across Twitter in double quick time, giving Liverpool yet another avoidable PR problem to deal with.

Can anyone give me odds on Jen Chang being told to “Walk on” by his bosses?

I would have thought that Liverpool would’ve been aware of the risks in making threats to any fan, let alone such a well followed individual. Chang’s decision to drop the threats probably resulted from the realisation that trying to destroy a man’s life because of a few hopeful punts on a parody Twitter account would eventually be more damaging to him than it would Jenkins. And he’d have been right.

The most disappointing element of this episode (and there are a few) from a public relations point of view is that the go to option to stop these supposed leaks was not conversation or mediation but to bully. It goes without saying that the role of PR should never be to threaten, no matter how red-faced an organisation is left. Is this reaction indicative of a club who have spent much of the last 12 months with their backs against the wall as they battle allegations of racism, poor on-pitch performance and not entirely unjustified jibes at their record in the transfer market? I’d say so, but that’s no excuse.

Furthermore proper public relations should save organisations time and money. The amount effort that went into compiling a dossier on Jenkins’ creator is dozens of times what it would’ve cost to develop an understanding through less nefarious, more conventional PR methods. The £300,000 extra that Roma bagged from the deal as a result of the tweets does not matter. Anyone could’ve posted a speculative tweet linking the club and player.

This doesn’t just mean bad PR for Liverpool either. It’s a story the communications industry could do without too. Granted it’s no Bell Pottinger and I expect coverage on conventional media will remain minimal but it doesn’t do us any favours.

The Online Rule