Campaign: Transfer deal yields global media frenzy

Client: SFX and Manchester United PR Team: Stuart Higgins Communications and Man Utd in-house team Campaign: The transfer of David Beckham Timescale: February-June 2003 Budget: Understood to be low five figures

England football captain David Beckham is a global celebrity icon whose good looks, exploits on the pitch and glamorous lifestyle off it have triggered an almost Princess Diana-like obsession among the media and the public at large.

When rumours that Beckham might be moving to a foreign club began to fly around like well-struck free kicks, media coverage went into overdrive.

Speculation about a Beckham transfer began following Man Utd's FA Cup defeat to Arsenal on 15 February, a game that provoked the ire of fiery manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Raging in the Old Trafford dressing room after the match, Ferguson kicked out at a football boot in a blind fury. The boot smacked into the midfielder's face and the story quickly appeared in the press. The Sun ran a report under the pithy headline 'Fergie Decks Becks', and the Daily Mirror followed up with 'Apologise or I'll Quit', a story claiming that Beckham had issued an ultimatum to his boss.

The relationship between the golden boy and the management genius who had nurtured him from childhood was under severe strain. The club, as a stock market-listed business keen to develop multiple revenue streams at home and abroad, had regarded Beckham as its most treasured asset.

But as the player only had two years left on his contract, and with Ferguson keen to remodel the team with the aim of winning the Champions League once again, the decision was taken to cash in on Beckham.

Objectives

To secure the transfer of Beckham to Real Madrid in a manner that did not damage the reputation of either Man Utd or the England skipper.

Strategy and Plan

Although much of the media coverage portrayed Beckham and Manchester United as being at odds, the truth is far more complicated and collaborative.

Throughout the affair, Stuart Higgins Communications, the PR firm set up by the eponymous former Sun editor, acted as an honest broker, liaising between Man Utd director of comms Paddy Harverson and Tony Stephens, Beckham's agent at sports management group SFX.

'It's rare to have as much co-operation and goodwill on both sides,' says Harverson.

Higgins sought to co-ordinate the comms work so it appeared both parties were working together rather than squabbling. Man Utd's City PR firm Finsbury, which was frequently approached by news-hungry journalists, referred non-financial enquiries back to Man Utd.

In late March, Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano was quoted as saying Beckham looked like the 'next big project' for the Spanish club.

However, it was on 10 June that things really hotted up. Man Utd announced it had accepted a bid for Beckham made by Joan Laporta, who was running to become president of Real's arch rival Barcelona.

SFX responded by issuing this blunt comment: 'David is very surprised to learn of this statement and feels he has been used as a political pawn in the Barcelona presidential elections.'

It was misconstrued by many as a sign of Beckham's disaffection with Man Utd, but was, in fact, a carefully worded attack on Barcelona. It was also designed to play well with Real Madrid, which, as well as being one of the world's biggest clubs, is also the ideal choice for Beckham because its sponsors include Pepsi and Adidas, with whom Beckham already has longstanding relationships.

Real decided its voice should now be heard. It is believed to have contacted Bell Pottinger consultant Simon Cohen - who declined to comment for this piece - with a brief to portray Real in the UK media as the 'only club' with sufficient class and stature for the England superstar. Journalists were encouraged to report that Beckham would go to Madrid.

There was even an element of co-operation between the clubs. When Man Utd chief executive Peter Kenyon was spotted meeting with Real representatives in Sardinia, Real's advisers tipped off Higgins, so he was prepared for the story to break.

Measurement and Evaluation

Where to begin? The story became not just a national obsession, but an international one. The scale of coverage was immense, from BBC1's flagship News at Ten O'Clock, across all the UK nationals, to the likes of The Boston Globe, Singapore's The Straits Times and German news magazine Der Spiegel. Keying 'David Beckham transfer Real Madrid' into search engine Google results in 12,400 alternatives.

Results

On 17 June Man Utd announced it had agreed to transfer David Beckham to Real Madrid for £25m. 'I feel I played a small role in helping all sides successfully get through a minefield of media attention and help everyone fulfil their requirements,' says Higgins.

But while Beckham's image appears only to have been further enhanced, Man Utd has not fared quite so well. 'United were walked all over by SFX,' says one football writer. 'Man United were quite angry with the way they were portrayed,' says another.

Reports last week that Leeds player Harry Kewell, supposedly a Man Utd target, was ruling out a move to Old Trafford, in part because of the way Beckham had been treated, show the club may need to address some reputation issues.

As for Beckham mania, it shows no sign of abating. 'There's even talk of a couple of the papers buying flats out there (Madrid) to reduce hotel costs,' says one prominent UK football writer - on his mobile from Madrid.

'It's just like when Gazza went to Lazio in 1991. The interest won't lessen.'

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