The past five years have witnessed an astonishing transformation of
the nation’s favourite sport. An influx of TV money has raised
football’s profile to such an extent that news about the ’beautiful
game’ is now as likely to hit the front pages as the back pages of the
To maximise on the growing strength of their brands, the larger clubs
have employed creative marketing departments. To date, PR has not been
taken as seriously, with many clubs still employing just a press officer
to handle simple media enquiries. However, there are now clear signs
that this is changing.
Although not in the Premier League, Fulham is a club with a high media
profile, largely thanks to flamboyant chairman Mohammed Al Fayed. That
media profile is now in the care of Max Clifford.
’Football is starting very late to wake up to the need for PR,’ says
Clifford. ’You only need to look at examples such as Newcastle’s
problems when board director Freddy Shepherd called local women ’dogs’,
Manchester United’s abysmal PR ’charm offensive’ in Brazil and the FA’s
handling of Glenn Hoddle’s sacking, to see that the game is crying out
for PR help.’
Manchester United’s trip to Brazil last month to take part in the Fifa
World Club Championship is a prime example. United’s presence in Brazil
was supposed to be a PR exercise aimed at aiding England’s bid to stage
the 2006 World Cup - at the expense of United defending the FA Cup. A
lack of media management led to the team being accused of arrogance and
being panned by the media at home and abroad. The whole escapade was
branded a PR disaster and reinforced public opinion in the UK that the
club is getting above itself.
In the wake of the Brazil debacle a group of investors called
’Shareholders United’ have petitioned Sir Roland Smith, chairman of the
plc board, to appoint a full-time director of communications.
In a letter to Smith, Michael Crick, vice-chairman of Shareholders
United, wrote: ’As we are sure you appreciate, United’s current public
relations are a shambles. The failure to handle PR properly is doing
severe damage to United’s reputation in the City and among supporters,
with the wider British public and around the world.’
What is perhaps most surprising is that a global brand such as
Manchester United, with a market capitalisation of pounds 650 million,
does not have a board-level specialist already, But the club is not
alone. Newcastle United is seeking a communications director and Leeds
United and Bolton Wanderers have recently appointed PR agencies.
According to Clifford, Fulham was not the first club to approach him,
but he has turned others down because of a lack of understanding of
This is a view backed up by others. ’PR should be more important to
clubs but most haven’t woken up to it yet. At present most tend to be
reactive and not proactive,’ says Mark Edwards, a director at financial
agency Buchanan Communications.
The City is the most common area to find football clubs already using PR
agencies. Buchanan clients, for example include Aston Villa and
Manchester United has retained financial PR support since it was floated
in 1991. The flotation was handled by John Bick, then at Brunswick and
now working on the account at Holborn. He thinks United should beware of
appointing a PR person merely to fool the fans. ’The moment the fans
think they are being spun they will not be happy,’ he says.
As media exposure increases, there is greater deman than ever before for
the clubs to get its communications right with its customers.
Edwards thinks that introducing media training could help to prevent
footballers and club officials getting into trouble with the media
’Politicians get media training so why not footballers? After all, top
footballers are receiving much more newspaper coverage,’ he says.
Newcastle United is one club that has suffered several PR disasters in
recent years, such as the News of the World expose of two directors of
the club describing Newcastle women as ’dogs’, laughing at fans being
ripped off, and describing star striker and club captain Alan Shearer as
’Mary Poppins’. More recently the club faces outrage and a court battle
over plans to renege on a promise to season ticket holders who bought
into Newcastle’s ’bond’ scheme replacing their promised seats with more
lucrative corporate hospitality boxes. The club is seeking a director of
communications to report to the main board and develop a more strategic
and proactive approach to communications.
While management of national and international coverage can be an issue
for a number of clubs, some are also seeking PR help with their work in
the local community and business ventures.
Leeds United has recently appointed local agency Outside the Box to work
across its nine business and commercial units. ’It is key to the
continued success of the big clubs that they build on their brand. A
club can go stagnant if it does not capitalise on all sorts of spin-off
opportunities,’ says James Clark, who heads the Leeds account.
This growing ’corporatisation’ of football means it is likely that
sooner, rather than later, more clubs will look to PR expertise to help
manage reputations with key audiences such as the local community,
shareholders and the local and global media.