NEWS ANALYSIS: How the Americans wooed Liverpool

This month's sale of Liverpool Football Club was a shining example of how to handle comms around a major takeover deal. David Quainton analyses the tactics of the club itself, and those of its new American owners.

For a football club with such an enviable history, Liverpool FC has had its fair share of ‘bad news' moments. They range from the tragic - Heysel and Hillsborough - to the embarrassing - former chairman Noel White complaining about team affairs to a national paper last year. Either way, the red half of Merseyside has often seemed in need of a little PR help.

A source of mirth for opposition fans, particularly those from Chelsea, has been the club's relentless search for funding over the past three years as owner David Moores looked to sell.

Moores himself has not helped, displaying a protean attitude to the sale because of what sources call an ‘emotional attachment' to the club.

But sell Liverpool he did, to American billionaire duo George Gillett and Tom Hicks, whose capture ended months of speculation.

Reactive comms
Despite being rushed, the takeover was a major PR success.

Vero Communications managing director Mike Lee, who has been advising Liverpool since last November, says: ‘From a comms perspective, the key was to manage the story that changed direction in the midst of the takeover. The success was to create a positive feel throughout despite some difficult moments.'

The ‘difficult moments' mentioned by Lee came in January, when Dubai International Capital (DIC) - until then the chief bidder - pulled out of a deal in the wake of renewed interest from Gillett (who had initially bid without Hicks' financial backing).

Previous difficulty involved DIC's questionable intentions for Liverpool FC. A document leaked to national journalists revealed that DIC planned to sell the club by 2014. Until the leak, Liverpool's communication around the proposed deal had been positive, eulogising DIC's interest. Sources close to the deal say relations between the two parties became strained, prompting DIC to withdraw without briefing Liverpool beforehand.

Lee then spent a frantic 72 hours promoting Gillett and Hicks, working alongside Liverpool CEO Rick Parry and Financial Dynamics, which advises the American duo. The team went to great lengths to ensure media did not make an issue of the fact that only one bid remained on the table - a remarkable feat considering the tenacity of the sports press.

Gillett and Hicks' ‘belief in sport' and past achievements were emphasised, as was their financial clout.

The team also highlighted the strength of Gillett and Hicks as a unit, to pre-empt any claims they would not work together. Local newspapers and Liverpool fans were targeted as a matter of priority.

US charm
On the day of the deal, the Americans provided a PR masterclass.

Gillett and Hicks revealed details of conversations they had already had with local heroes such as Steven Gerrard. Meanwhile, Liverpool pumped out the message that ‘this is in the club's best interest', and the majority of fans - perhaps tired of the three-year wait for new owners -were happy to believe it.

The Liverpool Echo and official Liverpool FC website ran exclusive interviews with Gillett and Hicks following the announcement of their purchase to the London Stock Exchange.

The denouement came when Gillett said he would meet any fans with doubts about his intentions. As one journalist said, the deal was a dream for PROs and Liverpool fans alike.

PRWeek asked a local sports journalist to assess the takeover (see below).

John Thompson (pictured), sports editor, Liverpool Echo

‘On the afternoon of 6 February, George Gillett proudly told the biggest gathering in Anfield’s trophy room for many years that he was buying “the most important club in the most important sport in the world”.

‘It was a crucial moment for Gillett and his Texan business partner Tom Hicks, with both parading themselves publicly around their new club, just three hours after their £220m bid for Liverpool FC had been accepted.

Desperate to convince everyone that the club was in safe hands, this was their big chance to be believed – and they knew it.

‘Gillett’s winsome soundbite was one of several designed to reassure supporters that respect for Liverpool FC’s heritage was riding tandem with the duo’s sporting passion and business acumen.

Pounds and pride

‘As club PR chief Ian Cotton guided the ceremonials, Gillett spoke of his pride and privilege at the pending purchase, begged journalists to look him in the eye, and admitted what he didn’t know about football – as well as what he did.

‘But he probably felt a swift kick to the shin under the table when he called Liverpool a sporting franchise, rather than a football club, and again when he and Hicks talked of goal tenders, rather than goalkeepers, and “the Liverpool Reds”.

‘But there was no sense of panic – and suddenly it all came together and worked. The Americans’ gaffes had brought winces that instantly turned to smiles. And forgivable minor howlers helped win the day because, sometimes, you can be just too smooth.

‘They were human to a fault, it seemed, and their awkwardly phrased sincerity blended quite properly with the synchron­ised soundbites.

‘Back in Dubai, a DIC strategy aimed at damage limitation, criticising Moores personally for his late rebuff of its bid, had long since backfired.

‘Moores had changed his mind on doing a deal with DIC, feeling rushed and bullied to close it. So he had followed his new instincts, and turned to the Americans.

Slick, but not too slick

‘The stinging yet anonymous accusation from DIC’s team, claiming Moores had lost his mind in rejecting them, actually seemed to suggest the opposite.

‘So the ultimate battle, however important, was thus won by two rich American pals whose PR advice in Liverpool was pretty slick.

‘But not too slick for those in a city who prefer their trophies, not their people, polished to perfection.’

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