Opinion: News Analysis - Football must learn the tactics of the PR game/Football is big business and it has never been so popular, which is why some of the big clubs are only now realising the need for professional PR advice

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 national press.

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

national press.

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.

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