ANALYSIS: FA coasts through the media circus - With the World Cup PR effort finally over, Football Association PR chief Paul Newman tells Chris Scott how the intense media interest was handled

After two years of news stories about how Japanese soldiers were training to handle English hooligans, and more recent fears over player fitness, the media coverage of England's World Cup PR campaign seemed to have gone rather well.

Yet despite the dejection that met England's elimination from the tournament - in a dreary 2-1 defeat to Brazil in the quarter-finals - the Football Association stands accused of misjudging the mood of the nation by slipping the team back into the country late at night away from the eyes of a keen media.

According to Paul Newman, FA director of communications and a former BBC TV sports correspondent, the return home was simply a matter of logistics: 'You can't plan what you will do in advance. The only imperative is to make the right provision for the players. There's a responsibility to get the players home and get them to their families and a responsibility to the clubs to get them on holiday as soon as possible as they are due back in training in three weeks.'

The failure to provide a focal point for celebration prompted criticism from both the media and PR practitioners. Newman hints that disappointment at England's elimination influenced the arrangements for the team's return: 'Clearly if we had won the tournament it would have felt right to have a celebration, but given the timescale involved it would have been ludicrous to hold a shindig at 11 at night.'

The FA, then, is intent to safeguard the interests of its players above all other considerations. Yet Newman insists the message of players appreciating fans' support was also clearly communicated: 'Captain and coach specifically expressed their thanks to the fans before we left Japan. It was a matter of public record. We had to be aware of security requirements too - it's not desirable to have a group of famous footballers arriving at an airport and being mobbed.'

If the homecoming appears something of a wasted PR opportunity, the rest of the PR operation has proved remarkably successful, something Newman attributes to extensive forward planning: 'We've been planning our World Cup campaign for some months now, during which time several people have made the trip to Japan to reassure the public.

'We've pushed the message that methods of controlling hooligans travelling abroad and the distance and cost of reaching the tournament have weeded out undesirable elements,' he adds.

With perfectly managed visits to local schools fuelling an already hysterical local fan-base, the England team became one of the best supported among Japanese and Korean fans. Yet the intense media fascination from journalists around the world brought its own pressure, particularly when so much focused on one player.

'Obviously we received an awful lot of requests for interviews with David (Beckham). The major judgement I had to make was when to let him talk to the media. With the long-running saga over his fitness there was no point putting a player up to speak to the press if he couldn't talk positively about being fit. Otherwise he would have had to have talked about the injury and it would have been very negative,' Newman says.

'I felt the best opportunity for Beckham to talk to the press was when he could declare his fitness, and that coincided with arriving in Japan. When he appeared for the first time he had a positive message - it was a big moment for us,' he adds.

There is a belief within PR circles that after years of harsh criticism from the media over its team managers and the team's performances, the FA has become defensive in its handling of the press. But Newman is proud the FA has handled its tournament PR with a minimum of fuss.

'The tournament has shown we can provide the best support and organisation.

The FA has been able to ensure the right locations, training camps and media facilities and that they're in the right place so the team and press didn't have to keep travelling around Japan and Korea,' he says.

'We were aware of the demands as we are used to it. With a World Cup you have to add an international dimension. In Sven (-Goran Eriksson) we have a coach who has coached in Portugal, Italy and Sweden which creates interest from all over the planet, never mind Japan and South Korea. England is in the top two or three countries in the world in terms of media demand,' he adds.

Ultimately the FA's focus throughout the tournament has been on the performance of the team and ensuring smooth media handling rather than actively managing its own reputation.

To this end the FA's work in Japan was little short of impeccable. However, it is fortunate that the public adoration of the team and the goodwill they have already created spared it harsher criticism for its management of the players' return.

EXPERT COMMENT

Max Clifford, Max Clifford Associates

'We should have had a decent homecoming - we just had to follow the Irish. It wouldn't have been too difficult for them to organise for the players to come back the following morning at a more civilised time. There should have been a homecoming reception, probably in London. They could have given kids the day off school to go and see them. At a time when they had generated huge goodwill and pride in their performance, they came home with a whimper.'

Mark Borkowski, Borkowski PR

'This is deeper than the England team. The people who are responsible for the press interests of the England team have a combative relationship with the press and presumably didn't know how to call it. The return should have been a celebration and it needed an element of stage-managed showmanship, taking account of the security of the players. The fact that they didn't probably reflects how really disappointed they were to lose.'

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