News Analysis: Low-key PR can save FA's image

The News of the World chief sports writer and Times columnist offers the Football Association hints on how it can recover from the PR crisis of the past month.

Hey, and we thought Sven-Goran Eriksson's tactics were lousy. But compared to his employers, the England football coach has pretensions to genius.

Short of allowing the 12 board members to depart from their secret meeting at the Leonard Hotel last Thursday minus trousers, it is hard to imagine how the Football Association could have made a bigger PR mess of the past three weeks.

It was the naivety of the PR strategy of former CEO Mark Palios and FA communications director Colin Gibson - to offer the News of the World details on Eriksson's affair with secretary Faria Alam in return for keeping Palios's name out of the paper - that was most surprising.

How could an experienced newspaperman like Gibson, the former Daily Mail journalist whose resignation as FA comms director was accepted last week, possibly think he could keep Palios out of the headlines?

Say he had succeeded, that he had brought Alam and the News of the World together and she had told everything about her affair with Eriksson, while keeping schtum about sleeping with Palios. How long would that cosy secret have lasted?

The daily newspapers would have been hot for the follow-up on the Monday, making it a matter of time before the Palios link was established, and then what? The same publicity storm Palios and Gibson were trying to avoid. The plot was a non-starter from a PR point of view.

'Too many agendas' within football

For the FA's comms department to enter the world of the kiss-and-tell unchaperoned was the news management equivalent of Eriksson's decision to send Emile Heskey on to play against Zinedine Zidane.

But even without the extenuating circumstances of recent weeks, working in the press department for football's governing body is often a no-win situation.

There are too many agendas and what is good for the press and good for the England team, or the clubs, is rarely the same. Right now, a long chat with Wayne Rooney about his future would be top of any football writer's agenda. Yet his club, Everton, would be horrified at putting an 18-year-old up for such a grilling: the player would be uncomfortable with it and his agent and PR man would argue that such a story could be sold for six figures.

As a result, the FA press office spends much of its time dealing with grumpy people: journalists who asked to speak to Michael Owen and ended up around a table with Phil Neville; players who are unhappy at being ambushed on matters unrelated to playing for England; and managers seeking to control information at their club, only to read a star turn singing like a canary while on international duty. Sir Alex Ferguson is particularly fond of the last one.

Other sports do not have the same media problems. The majority seek and need publicity, scrapping over the five per cent of sponsorship, advertising and marketing money that is not consumed by football.

The numbers at Sir Clive Woodward's press conferences in the week of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final last November were less than those at an Eriksson briefing before a routine England friendly. Football's position in the marketplace is unique and the demand on the press departments of football clubs - and the FA - reflects that.

On the day of England's departure from Euro 2004, Eriksson and David Beckham did an exhaustive round of interviews, beginning with a general press conference that included TV before a separate radio stint and a more selective chat with the national daily newspapers (two representatives per newspaper and two minutes of questions at the start for evening papers and agencies to file immediately), finishing with the Sundays. This was a team that had lost on penalties the previous night, remember, and no doubt just wanted to get the hell out of there. Yet there were obligations.

The process of conducting separate interviews has evolved over ten years - at the request of the newspapers, fed up with having their best lines broadcast instantly by the electronic media hours before they could go to press - and it is to the FA's credit that it works at all. Less than 20 years ago, the equivalent end-of-tournament debriefing would have involved the coach and roughly a dozen writers, over two pots of coffee, in the lobby of a hotel.

The irony of all this is that, deep down, professionalism is the last thing many journalists want. My own favourite FA press officer was Mike Parry, now a talkSPORT presenter, because he was so wonderfully indiscreet. I have a memory of him sitting on the steps of the Watford Hilton (not as glamorous as it sounds), giving an off-the-record briefing to reporters on the councillors sitting in judgement of sacked Arsenal manager George Graham. The words 'and this bloke says he prefers rugby' echoed around the car park.

FA should 'stick to what it knows'

By that standard, FA head of media relations Adrian Bevington - who has taken interim control of the FA's PR following Gibson's exit (PRWeek, 6 August) - can only be a disappointment.

Sensible and professional, he should have had the job when former comms boss Paul Newman left and would certainly not have steered the FA into this mire.

Bevington is an old-school PR man, not comfortable when asked to play the spin doctor and with few attempts at news management.

He is reactive rather than proactive, and while that might not be the PR industry fashion, it is what the FA requires after recent events. The organisation needs to return to its days of quiet dignity, stuffed shirts and blazers; if it continues trying to massage the headlines, it plays every game away from home.

Bevington (under Newman) was on duty the night of Ulrika Jonsson's revelations about Eriksson, and the FA's decision to make no comment on what was a private matter meant the story expired within days.

By contrast, the FA's handling of this latest diversion has been so ham-fisted that it has cost the job of an outstanding CEO, a well-regarded comms director (Gibson's performance at Euro 2004 was widely praised after a shaky start), and, perhaps, FA chairman Geoff Thompson, too.

It was Gibson's attempt at Max Clifford mimicry that caused this crisis. The lesson for the FA is to stick with what it knows. Despite the FA being headquartered in Soho, football isn't the sex industry.

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