This past weekend has brought news of football journalists finding themselves barred from doing their job.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Photo by Akuppa
On Saturday there was a funeral. A handful of Newcastle United supporters laid the name St. James’ Park to rest. Opinion was divided – some thought it was a great way to display discontent, others felt it was tasteless. While it was apparent that the unpopularity of the name change was almost universal, agreement on how to make these feelings known wasn’t.
Whereas clubs see fans as a homogeneous group who will be largely content when presented with a winning team, supporter trusts have to contend with the fact that outside the stadium this crowd is made up of a variety of publics who have entirely different expectations, especially regarding fan representation. It could be suggested the popularity of the Premier League contributed to this rift amongst supporters. “Going to the game” is now seen as a family event, with a mix of socio-economic groups rubbing shoulders in the stands. Moreover the importance of the crowd in general has altered, as the amount of money that comes in from other sources increases.
This poses an issue for supporter campaigns – not only are fans increasingly divided, but their concerns no longer carry the weight they once did. As a result movements are having to become better organised and more media savvy, much like the Love United Hate Glazer campaign. However there is only so much fans can achieve in their spare time and without proper PR skills.
Could we see a time in the future when supporter trusts actively use public relations agencies to further their cause? I’d be surprised if the idea hasn’t already been talked about. As it gets harder for fans to make their voices heard from the terraces hiring a PR agency will become increasingly attractive, especially if the only alternative way to get a message out there is by spending yet more cash on badges, banners and scarves.
Photo by Darrel Birkett
There’s been some debate over whether Newcastle United will be successful or not when it comes to selling the naming rights to St. James’ Park (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call it the Sports Direct Arena) in time for the 2012-13 season. Many who know better than me seem to think that Mike Ashley is on a hiding to nothing, but personally I can’t see the ground retaining the red and blue branding from long.
Some are rightly sceptical of the club’s assessment that the Sports Direct branding is only a stop gap until a company can stump up the requested sum. We’ve been told similar before, however there does seem to be a degree of logic behind this latest move. Any alteration to the St. James’ Park moniker was going to prove extremely controversial and cause a PR crisis for the first organisation that decided to become a title sponsor of the stadium. Renaming the ground the Sports Direct Arena until the end of the season doesn’t just provide Mike Ashley with free advertising, but it will take the sting out of any protests allowing the future sponsorship deal to be met with a smaller grumble of discontent than it would’ve been had there been no transitional period.
It seems to me that the key to success could lie with who the club is courting. If in two months’ time (when we’re told a decision needs to be made) there is still a large amount of negative publicity surrounding the name change then this will almost certainly put off companies who do the majority of their work within the United Kingdom. There are more obvious benefits for an organisation that has a presence in a variety of territories and is less likely to be negatively impacted by any coordinated boycott from Newcastle supporters. The Premier League is watched by over 600 million people worldwide and beamed to over 200 countries making it the most watched sporting league in the world. If the club can continue its good form and remain in a position where European football remains a real possibility then the chances of a sponsor being sourced must increase.
We’ll not know whether Newcastle’s venture into rebranding St. James’ Park has worked until late January at the earliest. Needless to say if they do manage to pull this one of it’ll prove that nothing is sacred in football and the floodgate for namechanges will be flung open.