Analysis: FA faces PR challenge over violence

With the England football team's qualification for next year's European Championship in Portugal dependent as much on an end to hooliganism as it is on results, the Football Association is facing one of its biggest PR challenges yet, says Adam Hill

After England's Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey at Sunderland in April, UEFA, the governing body of European football, warned the FA that any repeat of the crowd trouble that marred that game could see the team eliminated from the competition.

As a result, the FA has had to alter its communications strategy radically, and PR efforts now are all about avoiding a repeat of the violence during the remaining fixtures, the first of which took place last weekend against Macedonia in Skopje.

This passed mostly without incident, with those England fans who did turn up not even reacting to the burning of their flag by Macedonians.

But the crunch tie will be the away trip to Istanbul to face Turkey.

A key PR move for the FA has been to promote the decision not to accept away tickets to the Skopje and Istanbul games. And this week even coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was called on to hammer home this point, when he warned fans intent on going to Istanbul that they were risking their lives.

'We did a lot of media work after the Turkey home game,' says FA comms manager Nick Barron. 'Before, it was all about trying to educate and changing behaviour. Subsequently it has been: "you must understand the serious position we are in".'

It is not a subtle distinction. Part of Barron's original brief had been PR for an initiative to attract more women and children to England games.

Post-Sunderland, however, this seems to have gone out of the window, switching instead to a grim acceptance that thugs must have the need for good behaviour stressed to them in a way they will understand.

Handling a media relations campaign that can successfully target violent football hooligans is undoubtedly a key PR challenge.

Barron states: 'The current message is that we are not necessarily going to change people's attitudes, so it's about warning of the consequences (of further hooliganism).'

Those intent on causing trouble are bound to ignore any attempts to modify their behaviour. But Barron says: 'Hopefully we will be reaching the "soft" core who do care about how they are perceived. '

FA head of media relations Adrian Bevington says that getting coverage in the national press to target this 'soft core' has been a priority.

He adds: 'We have been very open with the media... In the build-up to the Macedonia game we were upfront about our decision not to take tickets.

We gave a briefing to every national newspaper chief football writer, as well as Reuters and the Press Association.'

But one football journalist dismisses the FA's efforts as a sop to the threat of elimination from Euro 2004. 'It is more a case of being seen to do the right thing by UEFA,' he says.

Indeed, while the FA has targeted the national press, the media relations campaign has not reached out to football magazines such as FourFourTwo.

But perhaps this is because specialist magazines are for the more cerebral football fan, with the broader reach of the national press a better way to target hooligans.

If nothing else, the FA is likely to make friends in Skopje. While not taking ticket allocations for England fans, it paid for 2,500 Macedonian orphans and underprivileged youngsters to watch the match.

It is a cute PR move, although the FA will be under no illusions about the real job it faces for Istanbul in October.

'We will try to encourage the Turkish media to put out some positive messages,' says Barron. Bevington explains that a one-on-one interview with Eriksson by a leading Turkish paper is being mooted, plus a joint press conference between the England coach and his opposite number.

Bevington says the FA has been working with its counterparts in Turkey and UEFA to smooth the way.

All this is against a background that has seen cost-cutting deplete the FA's marcoms team, including former comms director Paul Newman,who was made redundant in April.

Bevington pledged to 'step up' the FA's anti-racism campaign when he took over his current role (PRWeek, 13 June) and his approach has been to use senior players to take up the message of respect for opponents.

At press conferences, Eriksson and key players like Michael Owen have spoken strongly about 'fans behaving themselves.' CCTV images of suspected troublemakers have also been released to the media.

However, privately the FA admits there is little that PR can realistically do to deter hardcore thugs from travelling, ticket allocation or not.

And if England does qualify, the FA still faces the challenge to ensure that violence does not return. Barron says: 'We will certainly liaise with the Portuguese media. We did it with the Japanese (for the 2002 World Cup).'

However, Japan had the advantage of being an expensive place to get to.

For English hooligans, Portugal is little more than a normal Saturday away trip. A simpler journey if England qualify, but one that will surely present more challenges ahead for the FA.

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