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11 May 2015

Playing The Game: PR and Football

Written by: James Shapland, Assistant Account Executive at Edelman

Corporate Reputation

In every business, the pressure for results is unrelenting. Leaders are under constant pressure and the consequences of poor performance can be catastrophic.

In the business of English football, that pressure comes to the boil in the full glare of public opinion. With the notoriously unsympathetic media and the intense scrutiny of passionate supporters, it seems obvious that communications should play a pivotal role in the running of clubs, leagues and associations, but the sport has been slow to adapt and continues to struggle.

In February, it was announced that the Premier League had sold its television rights for a record breaking £5.14 billion. Football has become huge business and the flood of foreign investment underlines the importance of protecting the game’s reputation.

In the aftermath of a recent 3-1 loss to Chelsea at home, Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson delivered the most talked about post-match press conference of the season. In a bizarre outburst, the Foxes’ manager asked a reporter whether he had “buried his head in the sand” and proceeded to call him “stupid”, “daft” and, perhaps most amusingly, “an ostrich”.

Of course, the press conference is part of the drama. José Mourinho, manager of Pearson’s opposition that day, provides a perfect example of how to use the platform to stir up controversy and strategically draw attention away from a poor performance on the pitch. Coincidentally, Leicester went on to win emphatically in their next match three days later, although even Pearson surely wouldn’t claim it was a deliberate tactic.

For me, the incident cast further light on football’s communications naivety. In the 1980s, when a press conference might have been populated by the local Mercury and Radio Leicestershire, these comments would have been quickly forgotten. However, in the modern era of social media and 24 hour news, Pearson’s face was plastered across our screens within seconds.

During this season alone, countless PR blunders have made their way onto the back and front pages. From Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere smoking cigarettes in Las Vegas to Wayne Rooney boxing in his living room, football is constantly in the news for the wrong reasons.

Beyond the petulant misdemeanours of overpaid superstars, world football has been rocked by the allegations surrounding its governing body. FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has created one of the biggest controversies of the sport’s history and I could write another five blog posts exploring the failures of the executive committee.

The bottom line is that football needs to get its house in order. Players are held as idols across the country and, if £200,000 per week is not enough to prevent misbehaviour, clubs must find other ways to avoid stories emerging (advising Wilshere to find somewhere a little more private for a crafty cigarette would be a start).

On a grander scale, the organisations running the sport must adapt to the modern era and communicate in a more transparent way to garner trust that has been so dramatically lost. From both an emotional and commercial perspective, stakeholder management should form an essential role in the running of football.

While PR is finding its way into the sport, and there are examples of fantastic work, the industry has an opportunity to strengthen football’s reputation and pull the beautiful game’s head out of the sand.

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