There are lessons everywhere for us communicators if we look hard enough. And team sport is rich with them.
by Ben Greenwood
As anyone who has worked with me will know, I am partial to using a football analogy to describe the complex situations we, as comms professionals, sometimes find ourselves in.
Ones I use fairly frequently:
Mitigating a reputational risk in the media: “We cleared the ball off the line”
Successfully managing a leak: “We scored an equaliser in the last minute of injury time.”
National media on the doorstep: “We need to park the bus.”
Not everyone follows football of course, so I am sure it can be annoying and even Jonathan Van-Tam got a “bit of stick from the touchline” for his use of football metaphors recently.
But, still, there are simple lessons we can glean from the beautiful game.
1. Have a good scouting network
Modern clubs have extensive scouting networks and a host of data analysts. The reason? Good quality data, research and intel is vital when deciding whether to spend millions on a player. And understanding those three things when shaping our comms strategies and tactics is an absolute must in normal times and especially important during testing periods like we’ve experienced in 2020. At Blackburn with Darwen, we have strong links with the data analysts in public health. That data helps us prioritise our efforts, shapes our content and gives us a good framework to evaluate our successes.
2. Put your foot on the ball and slow the tempo
Your team’s under the cosh. The opposition’s pressure has been relentless. You can’t get out of your own half. You need someone to come in, put their foot on the ball and keep a cool head when all around are panicking. When a crisis hits an organisation, it always creates some panic and uncertainty even in senior management. Comms people are well placed to be the ones to say, ‘let’s stop for five minutes and think this through.’ What’s the problem? What are the options to solve it? If you and your team can do this, your value to the organisation and its leaders will be immense.
3. Game management
Every team has a strategy for their next opponent. The strategy informs the tactics they will deploy. If they’re playing for a draw, they need to keep it tight at the back and try to counter. But things happen in the game, they might have to change their approach. The lesson here is all comms strategies and plans should be living documents. Once signed off, you shouldn’t leave it in the filing cabinet never to be looked at again. You need to continually review, evaluate and adapt to circumstances. We certainly do that at Blackburn with Darwen, especially with our coronavirus response. When one tactic is not getting traction, we look at the data and change tack. We use the intel to shape our messages and how we disseminate them. We respond to feedback from residents and adapt, for example publishing the latest Covid-19 data in an easily understandable weekly infographic. The strategic objectives are the same (get a draw) but you may need to bring an extra centre back on for the last five minutes of the game to secure it.
4. Defend and attack as a team
The clubs that win trophies without exception are balanced. They have complementing personalities and skill sets. They work together. They don’t carry players who selfishly play for themselves and are only concerned about their own performances. Our team at Blackburn with Darwen have a range of personalities and skills which, when taken together, mean the whole is greater than the sum of its part. We look out for each other, we support each other and we make sure we are all working towards the same goal. Oddly, remote working has actually brought us closer together. When coronavirus hit, we improved our team processes massively by introducing 10-minute catch-ups at the beginning of each day to ensure we talk to each other and are in constant communication. We have also improved our forward content plan and everyone knows what the priorities are for the day, the week and the month. We also have clear positions when we go to meetings so we don’t agree to actions we can’t deliver.
5. Player burnout means injuries
In the late 90s and early 00s, rotation was a bit of a dirty word in football. Those managers who rotated were called tinkerers or were accused of not taking competitions properly. But given the amount of games top clubs have to play now, and the speed and intensity the biggest matches are played at, players do need to be rested and they do need to recuperate. And it’s also an important lesson for us communicators. Time and again you hear stories of comms people racking up long hours and struggling with work life balance. As a profession, we can be our own worst enemies – we have high standards and we care. But unless you get that proper rest, and I mean switching yourself off completely from the madness, you will burn out both mentally and physically. The simple fact is and I will put it as bluntly as this – if you burn out, just like an injured footballer, you’ll be of no use to the team. Make sure you take your holidays, make sure you are keeping an eye on the hours you work and make sure you do something you love that is not work related.
As a massive Everton fan, I promised myself I would end with a quote from the great Howard Kendall. But unfortunately I couldn’t find an appropriate one. Instead I am going for the next best thing, Brian Clough. I don’t know why but it makes me think of our profession when I read it:
“I regret telling the entire world and his dog how good a manager I was. I knew I was the best but I should have said nowt and kept the pressure off ‘cos they’d have worked it out for themselves.”
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Pic via Leonard Bentlley