CAMPAIGNS: Takeover Bid - Atlantic aids takeover of Dundee Utd

Often referred to as the 'Beautiful Game', football is renowned for the passion and drama it induces on and off the pitch.

The former chairman and major shareholder of Scottish Premier League club Dundee United, Jim McLean, is testament to the fervour that can envelop even the mildest men of football.

During what became a notorious post-match interview with a local BBC reporter 18 months ago, an angry McLean was seen on camera to lose his temper when asked relatively innocuous questions.

Such was the furore of his widely-publicised outburst (much of which took place off camera, but was caught on audio), McLean, who boasts a long and illustrious tenure, decided the shame he had brought on his beloved club was worthy of his resignation.

He duly left the boardroom - but within months became concerned about the direction of the club, which was spiralling into debt - owing £2.5m - low in the league table and casting shadows over his ability to sell the shares he still owned.

So he joined forces with three like-minded local businessmen, and this consortium laid claim through their shareholdings to a controlling 54 per cent stake in the club.

McLean hired Edinburgh-based agency Atlantic PR to help orchestrate a swift but decisive takeover via a vote at an extraordinary general meeting (EGM). McLean had hired agency managing director Malcolm Brown for PR activity in the past.

A PR war of attrition broke out in the media between the consortium, represented by Atlantic, and the board, supported by its incumbent agency Beattie Media. Brown later described the campaign as 'two of Scotland's largest PR firms in horrendous battle.'

Objectives

To carry the vote of the consortium to success at the EGM and hence gain control of the club.

Atlantic PR was aware of the power possessed by the club's vociferous and articulate supporters' federations, and of the loyalty among employees both on and off the field.

It was crucial, therefore, that their involvement in the boardroom takeover be marginalised. Securing objectivity in the local print media and the more hostile and often partisan Scottish national media was also crucial.

Strategy and Plan

Atlantic prepared for a retaliatory high-profile campaign by the board that was expected to launch once the consortium's intentions were announced.

The board was to deploy Beattie Media to whip up anti-McLean sentiment in an attempt to split the consortium.

Atlantic therefore planned a 24/7 response team to answer media enquiries and oblige every interview request so as to tackle head on every negative comment made against the consortium.

Brown quickly became 'the voice of the consortium', and during the boardroom battle he oversaw over 150 TV, radio and newspaper interviews.

Brown says it was important to use the broadcast media efficiently as it was the arena where the consortium's reasons for its takeover could be outlined: 'Radio and TV interviews are short and cannot distort and debate what has been said at length, unlike the print media'.

Face-to-face meetings with supporters groups and federations were organised in order to spell out the reasons for the consortium's takeover bid and appeal for neutrality up until the EGM.

McLean's 'shameful' resignation only months earlier would prove to be the trump card held by the club and Beattie in trying to split ranks within the consortium, and so stave off the takeover.

Atlantic therefore planned to keep the embattled chairman and the rest of the consortium in the background, but 'carefully' raise the profile of Scott Carnegie, who would assume chairmanship once the EGM vote was taken.

The club nicknamed the consortium the 'Gang of Four' and McLean was portrayed as the malcontent who was dividing the club.

Atlantic, along with the consortium's Dundas & Wilson legal team, assumed proxy shareholder status so as to be given voters' rights, and attended the EGM alone. This was to shield McLean and the others from a verbal onslaught as the outgoing board were shown the door.

With the result guaranteed, Atlantic organised a press conference for moments after the vote, which involved nearly 50 media channels.

Beattie Media managing director Neil Scott handed his resignation to the board before the vote 'to ensure a smooth handover'.

Measurement and Evaluation

Both print and broadcast media coverage throughout the project commanded top spots in the Scottish news agenda, often on a daily basis. Front- and back-page splashes in all of Scotland's leading daily newspapers in the run-up to the vote ensured prime coverage, extending throughout the UK print media.

Local and national broadcast media coverage was also intensive throughout the three-month campaign.

Brown says the local newspaper, the Dundee Courier, offered 'neutral' coverage. Evaluation of messages in the coverage shows a breakdown of 60 to 40 per cent in favour of the consortium.

The influential supporters' groups announced they would assume a watching brief until the EGM had been finalised.

Results

Fronted by its PR effort, the consortium won the vote and control of the board, and Carnegie is now chairman.

As promised during the campaign, the club's books have been opened for public scrutiny. McLean has relinquished any managing interests in the club. Media coverage to date remains balanced and fair, and a positive media air towards the club has returned.

The significant result of the PR effort, however, remains the unprecedented neutrality of the fans and their federations during the fight for boardroom control.

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