From the editor-in-chief: I feel for PRs at the heart of Super League row – and urge them to make the right decision

Having written about communications and reputation management for a couple of decades, when a massive news story comes along I like to view it from the perspective of the comms professionals in the midst of the storm.

From the editor-in-chief: I feel for PRs at the heart of Super League row – and urge them to make the right decision

In my experience these comms pros are generally hard working, loyal and talented professionals who regularly find themselves at the sharp end of any story/crisis; listening to the public and media and other stakeholders, trying their best to respond in the right way.

And yet when a controversial story breaks, the first thing you’ll hear is what a ‘PR disaster’ this is. The comms professionals are attacked for ‘mishandling’ the issue.

'Tone-deaf land grab’ that could ‘decimate football’s legacy’ – PR pros react to Super League announcement

Sometimes this is true. Most often it is not. Usually one finds dedicated professionals trying to cope with poor decision-making, even mistakes by their employers: the business or political leaders.

Stories don’t come much bigger than the creation of a European Super League in football. This is an issue that goes beyond sport into the worlds of high finance, law and right to the very top of politics.

It’s a story that crosses social classes and demographics. As legendary football manager Bill Shankly once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

This is why I tweeted the following on Monday morning, just after the ESL story broke:

I happen to know that many of the comms professionals at the forefront of dealing with the ESL fiasco weren’t even aware of Sunday’s announcement or its creation until a day or two beforehand.

Worse, at the time of writing, none of the so-called ‘leaders’ of the big six English clubs who took the decision to create or join the ESL have so far even been prepared to front it up to the media.

Hence, the comms professionals have been caught between a rock and a hard place. They are forced to take the almost universal criticism and anger from fans, rival clubs, politicians, players and staff in their own clubs without any ammunition to fight back.

Rather than a comms failure, it may well be that joining this ESL is a thoroughly bad idea at the moment.

So what can our brave comms professionals do in such a situation?

First, they can do their best to try to get their superiors to communicate themselves, explaining their motivations for the ESL, which to be fair must be grounded in some sort of business imperative.

If we’re honest, much of the opposition to the ESL – Boris Johnson, other politicians, UEFA, rival club owners – are not that consistently ethical and consistent in all their own operations and motivations. I can’t remember much love for UEFA previously. Even the FA and Premier League have made serious reputational misteps in recent years.

Second, I believe as things stand there may be a big reputational upside here for one of the English clubs: pull out.

I realise that if any of the big six were to unilaterally pull out of the ESL now there could be huge legal repercussions having signed up. But think of the incredible reputational advantages of doing so.

If one of these club owners were to say: "Look, I’ve listened to the reaction of fans and the wider population... and I’ve decided we’ve made a mistake. We are genuinely committed to our supporters, the local communities, the Premier League, the English football pyramid and we will continue with our previous commitments to those competitions."

Such a club could be seen as actually having a social and ethical conscience (shock, horror). They may seriously enhance their own reputation. There may be a significant long-term financial upside to being such a brand.

So this is what I would urge comms directors of big six football clubs to be advising their bosses at the moment. There’s a chance they already are.

I do realise that would be a brave, risky, potentially career-limiting decision. Nevertheless, it’s probably the right one.

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