History will remember 18th – 21st April 2021 as a seismic 48 hours in the world of soccer-footy-ball.
by Ben Capper
Six English football clubs decided to break away from UEFA (the governing body of European football) to form their own league with other big European clubs. It would mean they’d play each other in perpetuity without the prospect of ever being relegated from the league; and in return they’d get oodles and oodles of cash. Anyway, after being officially announced on Sunday 18th April it only took about 2 days and the whole thing came crashing down under the weight of outrage from fans, TV pundits, and yes, you guessed it, politicians.
For those of you totally uninterested in this sport, and wondering why the same social and political mobilisation we saw across civil society in those few days can’t be so easily summoned against issues that, you know, actually matter, here is a good summary of what happened.
There are many opinions flying about, and much detail to digest. However, as ever, there are some very important lessons for all communicators to consider from this whole sorry episode.
There are 12 football clubs across Europe in this mess. However, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on one in particular: Liverpool FC. “My” team.
So, thinking of announcing something big like this? Don’t do these things:
1. Think you can get away without ‘owning’ the message
Depending on who you listen to and what you read, the European Super League (ESL) has been in the planning for anything from 2 to about 5 years; with the presidents and owners of Europe’s biggest clubs involved at the highest level.
Presumably they’d agreed in advance that the launch was going to be announced at a certain time.
Why then, was the “launch” confined to a joint, generic press release, in Liverpool’s case at least, published on their website at 11.30pm on a Sunday night (in between injury updates for a number of squad players) with supporting quotes coming from the Co- Chairman of Manchester United and President of Real Madrid?
In terms that those not interested in football might understand, this is like the Rebel Alliance announcing a merger with the Galactic Empire; with a quote from Darth Vader saying how much he was looking forward to “opening a new chapter for the Dark Side and the entire Sith pyramid.”
This is a club that wheels out its biggest stars to announce just about anything. Witness club legend Ian Rush “celebrating” a “global partnership” with none other than Dunkin Donuts.
But for an announcement of the magnitude of tearing up the fabric of European football (which let’s not forget, would mean no more Champions League – and no more dreaming of ‘Number 7’ for Reds fans); it’s a pretty derisory statement on a website published at a time designed for the least amount of traffic, with a quote from the CEOs of two rival clubs.
The only explanation I can think of is that they got cold feet at the last minute and did that classic “announce this, but keep it under the radar” announcement, so beloved of comms professionals in large organisations.
If you’re going to put a message out there, you’re going to have to own it, turn up and explain it, and be accountable for it. If it’s such a good idea, worth all the hassle, you’d better have a strong, confident message selling it.
This was very conspicuous by its absence in this case.
2. Sideline your comms team
The ESL famously employed a swanky PR agency to do their comms.
Now, I’m the last person to complain about organisations seeking external help with their comms. (It’s literally how I make a living.)
But here’s the problem with this. While in-house comms teams might not always have the capacity, they do have that local knowledge and organisational memory that can make or break any comms initiative.
As an external consultant, whatever I’m doing, I always make it my business to get to know the comms team of wherever I’m working. I always ask about any potential pitfalls that I need to be aware of. Whenever I’m scoping a project with a team I always ask about any history or peculiarities of the organisational culture that might get in the way of me delivering a successful project; and plan to legislate for them.
Liverpool have a very recent history of having to roll-back on ill-conceived, and generally bad ideas. Anyone in their comms team would have seen the media storm that was going to ensue from the ESL announcement. Any senior comms person would have insisted on being at the table or at least working hand in hand with the PR agency on this. They could have drawn on very recent experiences of dealing with the fallout of bad decisions the club had made. So why weren’t they consulted? Or just as bad; why weren’t they listened to? Essentially, why didn’t the PR agency make it their business to get to know their client?
Again, if this whole thing was such a brilliant idea, why weren’t they engaged for ideas of how to launch it?
I’m sure people in the comms team are probably both totally frustrated at the entirely predictable reputational damage they’re now having to deal with; and privately relieved that they weren’t associated with it.
Very important lesson: ignore your comms team at your absolute peril.
3. Ignore your brand story
In many ways, Liverpool are probably the club that have been damaged the most by this whole farrago.
And that’s because the very idea of the ESL is so utterly at odds with the story of the club. It’s apparently a club rooted in the traditions of a fiercely proud working class city. It’s very much a “traditional” club.
For LFC fans “You’ll Never Walk Alone” isn’t just a song from a musical; it’s an anthem, a life philosophy, a statement of solidarity.
“This Means More” is admittedly a phrase that has been somewhat imposed on the fanbase from those on high; but it does resonate with a lot of fans (as much as it annoys opposing fans).
The involvement in the ESL immediately made a mockery of both of these statements; and will put back the building of that brand story back years.
Your brand is everything: how you speak, a distillation of your organisational behaviour and values. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t do things that are visibly contrary to it.
But apparently, that is a very basic truth of comms that needs to be repeated in this instance.
4. Ignore the impact on your staff
Setting aside the frustration and annoyance of the comms team; it feels inconceivable that the club hierarchy (and the expensive PR agency) didn’t consider, or even brief, the only people that were ever likely to be asked tough questions about this: the manager and the players.
The “announcement” was made on a Sunday night. On the Monday night, Liverpool had a potentially pivotal match against Leeds Utd live on Sky TV. (It ended 1-1. Let’s leave that there). What tends to happen when football is on TV? The manager and players get asked questions.
There had been literally no public statements from anyone associated with the club leadership beyond that generic press release for the previous day. The first anyone associated with the club said anything public about it was the team manager, Jurgen Klopp, being asked about it live by Sky TV, after a media storm had been allowed to develop unabated all day.
He looked understandably annoyed and ill-prepared for what he faced. In the post-match interview he was also perhaps understandably spikey, whilst club vice-captain James Milner decided to go rogue and say the now famous words in his inimitable no-nonsense Yorkshire way: “I don’t like it and I hope it doesn’t happen”, when asked for his view on the ESL.
That phrase then became the phrase tweeted out by every LFC player the next day; damning the entire sorry episode in the process.
So far, so bad media management.
But its deeper than that. The club hierarchy had hung the manager and players out to dry, leaving them to face angry fans on their own and distracting the manager and coaching staff when they should have been focusing on an important match (in what has, admittedly been a pretty rubbish season).
It was a situation that seemed to completely disregard the welfare of the club’s staff; at best distracting them from their job, and at worst, putting them in actual physical danger.
This isn’t just a football thing. Organisations of all type really need to think through the impact of their actions on their teams, and prepare them adequately for it.
5. Misunderstand your people
It was heartening to hear that LFC decided to “discontinue” its involvement in the ESL after discussions with “stakeholders, both internal and external”.
I mean, sure, better late than never. But it never should have come to this.
To start with, this fundamentally shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between the club and its supporters, and the shared language they have. No football fan (of any club) I know would ever be happy, given the time, emotionally energy, and money they spend on following their team to be described as an “external stakeholder”.
Many organisations tie themselves in knots trying to describe their “people”.
Healthcare organisations struggle to decide between “patients”, “patients and families”, and “service users”.
Housing organisations and councils get confused between “tenants”, “customers”, “residents”, “rent payers”, and “tax payers”.
It’s a tricky one to resolve. It depends really on what kind of relationship an organisation wants with its “people”.
Many organisations with a public sector ethos wince at the thought of “customers”, even though they attempt to move towards a more commercial, “customer-focused” way of interacting with them.
I think it’s different again with NHS organisations. They have a much stronger emotional pull to the communities they serve (sorry housing organisations and councils). They’re about life and death. The NHS is the closest thing the English have to a national religion, as the saying goes. It’s inherently a more emotive connection. That’s why I always think the use of “customers” and “service users” doesn’t sit too well. But it is tricky, and I get that.
But one phrase none of these organisations would ever use (apart from maybe buried in Section 13.4.b of a particularly dense board report) to describe their people is “external stakeholders”. They understand that, when all’s said and done, they’re people businesses.
Which makes LFC’s use of this phrase particularly mind boggling.
I’m a football fan. But even I have occasional moments of clarity when I think about how ridiculous it is.
It’s a game played by 2 teams of 11 people on a field, all trying to kick an inflated sphere into one of two nets. The team that does that the most times is the winner. There are different “teams” usually established on a geographical basis that compete against each other. The players of the teams, at least at professional level usually have very little or no connection to the local area that they represent.
I also fully understand the Faustian pact that we as fans enter into in supporting a team competing at the highest level. The deal is that we get to enjoy our team winning and appearing in Champions League Finals whilst we turn a blind eye to the, at best, morally dubious nature of the business-side of football.
So why does it drive me so mad? Why are so many of my happiest and most traumatic life memories associated with it? Why do I feel a swell of pride and a lump in my throat whenever I hear You’ll Never Walk Alone?
It’s an irrational thing, and an emotional thing. It’s about tribalism and belonging. It’s a family thing. I can slag them off, but you can’t.
But any family knows itself intimately. It knows the ideas that will fly and the ones that no-one will ever agree to, so there’s no point even asking.
In LFC’s case, it should have been painfully obvious that joining the ESL would be one of the latter.
If it wasn’t, they should’ve spent the time and resource on a proper consultation. Which, again, they failed to do.
If you work in a people-based organisation, it’s important for you to know your people as intimately as you do your own family. It’s a tough ask, but essential for trust, and good communications to happen.
6. Think expensive comms can compensate for fundamentally bad ideas
The budget the ESL top brass committed to their appointed PR Agency will, at some point, be leaked. But for now it remains open to speculation.
But, it won’t have been cheap.
A quick look at their website shows a lovely Millbank Office and an endorsement describing them as “The Fortnum and Mason of Communications” by little-known “London MP”, Boris Johnson (their website needs updating).
None of this is to take away from the expertise and professionalism of the people who work for the agency. The point is that the project will have had a very hefty PR budget to be able to afford them.
But however brilliant the communications were, or were not; this is a timely reminder that a bad idea is still a bad idea, no matter how much you spend on the PR.
How do you know if something is a good or bad idea? Consult your people on it, think through the impact of it on your team and your community. Think whether it will enhance or detract from your brand story.
Do all of those things, and if you’re still convinced of its worth; by all means throw a huge PR budget at it.
But without that very basic thought process, don’t be surprised when your ROI falls through the floor.
7. Look like you’re half-way into a grouse shoot when you’re issuing your inevitable apology video…
When the full extent of the badness of the idea you’re announcing comes home to roost; you’ll inevitably need to issue a full and frank apology.
And to give him credit, LFC’s owner John W Henry, did eventually do just that once they announced they were pulling out of the ESL. He did what he should have done from the start: owned the message, considered the impact on his team, and the club’s supporters. He took personal responsibility, and it appeared heartfelt.
But it was too little too late, and it really did leave me wondering why, if what he was saying in his apology video was true, the situation was ever allowed to get where it did. But fair play to him.
But, an announcement of this magnitude, a humiliation of this level, an expression of contrition to this degree; I think warranted more care being taken over the presentation.
It looked like he’d just popped back into the mansion while he was half-way through a grouse shoot.
This might seem like a small trite detail, but be honest comms people; if your CEO had fouled up to this extent, and was forced to apologise on video, I’m pretty sure you’d have advised them to at least remove their gilet, and possibly put an ironed shirt on…
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Image via Wikimedia