FOOTBALL FEATURE Football's unsung heroes

A new season means new challenges, and not just on the field. Alex Black meets the best comms team players.

Townsend: big summer signings have been completed early this year
Townsend: big summer signings have been completed early this year

Two weeks in, and the new football season is already alive with shock results, takeover rumours and controversial refereeing decisions.

But while the battle for the season’s honours are fought out on the pitch, PRWeek decided it was time to trumpet the work of the people who keep a handle on the avalanche of information that flows bet­ween the football clubs and the media during the season.

As well as the daily dissemination of information to the media, fans, investors, local communities, sponsors and even politicians, clubs face a weekly invasion of – in the case of Premiership clubs – more than 100 journalists. Although none of the comms heads we spoke to have a ‘typical day’, many are facing similar challenges.

As the number of overseas players in the league increases, so do enquiries from foreign media. This means extra places on match days, but it also offers valuable opportunities for clubs to expand their fanbase beyond the UK.

Communications with clubs’ local communities have also become more labour intensive.

Although working with the local community is always part of a club’s remit, the past couple of years have seen wider CSR initiatives become part of clubs’ core comms plans. Chelsea produced its first CSR rep­ort at the beginning of the year, and recent coverage in the broadsheets has highlighted the work of the club’s African stars in helping their countrymen.

It is not just the clubs themselves that have found the role of their comms team changing. The Football Association PR manager Alex Stone says that the organisation’s focus has shifted over the past six years.

‘The challenge is to protect and dev­elop the reputation of the FA, and also enhance the profile of its lesser-known activities,’ explains Stone. As well as working with the PR teams of sponsors such as McDonald’s and E.ON, one of Stone’s current projects is promoting the England Women’s team’s involvement in its second FIFA World Cup in September.

Over the next few pages we analyse how developments have affected the work of the comms chiefs of five clubs.

MANCHESTER UNITED: the current Premiership champion

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Owner: Malcolm Glazer
Position at the end of last season: Premiership winners
Director of comms: Phil Townsend (right)

This June has been ‘the quietest ever’ in comms director Phil Townsend’s time at Manchester United.

Now in his fourth season, he had to deal with the BBC’s inquest into payments to agents in his first year, the take­over by the Glazer family in the next and Wayne Rooney’s pre-World Cup metatarsal injury last year.

But this year’s big double sig­ning – the £35m purchase of Spor­­ting Lisbon winger Nani and Por­to’s Anderson – was comp­leted in May, leaving Townsend with breathing space before the 2007/8 season kicked off.

As with all big clubs, CSR has become a key part of the press team’s remit, and much of this summer’s planning has revolved around the club’s 12-month-old charitable foundation.

This month a new chief executive will be installed at the head of the foundation and procedures are now being put in place to give the foundation’s marketing officer access to the players for promotional work.

The club plans ahead, but there isn’t much room to manoe­uvre when it comes to confid­en­tial deals such as sponsorship.

‘You can only announce these things once the deal has been done, but you have to get it out as soon as you can once it is,’ he says. ‘The only warning you get is when the commercial team tells us: “stand by your beds”.’

The club’s takeover by the Glazer family in 2005 provoked strong reactions from fans’ groups, and Townsend admits keeping communications channels open between the club and some groups is ‘difficult’.

‘We have no relations with the independent Manchester United Supporters Trust, for example,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to deal with groups that have behaved the way they have.’
On match days…

‘We are slightly unusual for a big club because the manager doesn’t do post-match inter­views,’ explains Townsend. ‘The only exceptions are after Champ­ions League games, when all clubs are obliged to hold a press conference.’

The club’s Old Trafford ground is the biggest in the Premiership and has an overspill area for the press box. It hosted more than 220 journalists during last season’s Champions League semi-final with AC Milan.

On in-house comms…

The core press team consists of Townsend, head of football media relations Diana Law and comms officer Karen Shotbolt. Law handles match day press, player issues, corporate comms and fans comms. She also has a team of part-time staff to help with issues like venue spons­or­ship. Press accreditation is taken care of by Leanne Bartram.

All of the club’s financial issues go through Townsend, although the Glazer family has its own press team.

Unlike many other football clubs, Manc­hes­ter United out­sources its edit­or­ial function. Public­ations such as the weekly news­letter and web­site are handled by PRWeek pub­lisher Haymarket Media Group, with Towns­end’s team retaining overall control.

IPSWICH: The Championship contender

Manager: Jim Magilton
Owner: Limited company owned by minority shareholders
Position at the end of last season: 14th in the Championship
Head of comms: Terry Baxter (right)

Baxter’s team spends the summer months taking stock of last season and sitting down with sponsor E.ON’s in-house comms team and mar­comms shop Brand Rapport to brainstorm ideas for the new season.

‘Some people have an idea in their head that by the end of May I’ve got my feet up on the desk smoking a cigar,’ laughs Baxter. ‘We plan ahead for product launches, kit launches, pre-season training sessions, and work with the commercial team to promote new initiatives.’

One of the fruits of the 2005 summer brainstorm was to make Ipswich Town the league’s first carbon neutral football club.

‘E.ON is obviously an energy company, so the original idea was to try to go carbon neutral for
only the one game,’ he explains. ‘Then we realised we could go one better and do it for a whole season.’

Column inches for the initiative were spread across the local and national press last season, and gave both the club and its spon­sor a valuable profile boost.

Before taking over as Ipswich Town’s comms boss, Baxter spent seven years commentating on
the club for the BBC, so he knows the local media inside out. He is also chairing a football league working party to assess the state of media facilities in UK football grounds.
On match days…

The average number of journalists visiting the club’s Portman Road ground on a match day varies between 60 and 80, according to Baxter. ‘We put a lot of emphasis on making sure the press are welcome and have all the facilities they need to do their job, including decent media facilities and access to the players and management,’ he says. ‘That is not always the case at some clubs.’

On a match day Baxter is in at 9am and generally stays at the ground until after 7pm.
On in-house comms…

‘One of the realities of being in the Champion­ship is that we have a relatively small press team,’ says Baxter. He is currently supported by comms manager Camilla Haycock, and Steve Pearce who is in charge of the club’s print and video editorial.

ARSENAL: the new stadium owner

Manager: Arsène Wenger
Owner: Arsenal Holdings
Position at the end of last season: fourth in the Premiership
Head of comms: Amanda Docherty (left)

Arsène Wenger may be one of the long­est-serving managers in the Prem­ier­ship, but his 11-year reign is nearly equalled by that of his comms chief Amanda Docherty.

Docherty joined the club when Clare Tom­lin­son left for Sky Sports in 1996, and has led the club’s comms ever since.

She estimates that her time is split equally between reactive and proactive comms work. The lack of a major international tournament this summer created a ‘news vacuum’ that her team has been working hard to fill.

Much of the planning done this summer has focused on the new Arsenal TV channel, putting content together and working out a distribution strategy for the new medium. The media and interview rooms at the ground have also been rejigged after feedback from the press corps.

However, Docherty says there has still been time to sit down with the manager and review coverage and campaigns from the previous season, as well as keeping him up to speed on the plans for this season.

Docherty is particularly proud of the club’s community work, which includes a host of programmes with local schools.

‘It’s very easy just to send out a news release but we want to have real subs­tance to our campaigns,’ she says of the club’s media work. ‘We encour­age all stakeholders to get involved and we use what we have to promote the comm­un­ity. Our job is to try to keep it fresh and the recent prog­rammes we’ve run have got great cover­age in the press and on TV.’

On match days…

Docherty says she is in the office on the morning of match day, with the comms action hotting up about an hour before kick-off.

‘I’ve been doing this job for so long that all the procedures we have in place take care of most things on match days,’ she explains. ‘Things like the pre-match interview with the manager will all be in the schedule and arranged well before the game.’

The move to the new Emirates Stadium last year nearly doubled the club’s press box capacity. ‘The High­bury press box took 78; here we can take 150,’ she says.

As well as briefing Wenger prior to the post-game press conference, Docherty co-ordinates all the media work – an activity that has expanded in her time at the club thanks to the increase in overseas players playing in the Premiership.

On in-house comms…

Arsenal has a 15-strong PR and media team headed up by Docherty. Five of those handle the reactive press enquiries, player interviews, official statements on players and finances, and corporate comms.

One person focuses on CSR, another is dedicated to community relations, and one more is in charge of commer­cial PR for club products and services.

Four of the team work in the publica­tions department, which handles all the club’s editorial including programmes and replying to letters from fans. There is also a writer dedicated to handling player correspondence.

The club decided to employ two full-time photographers seven years ago.

‘We can get them to take pictures of a player with one of the young mascots and then we send the shots to the mascot’s local paper. It maximises what we can do as a club,’ says Docherty.

READING: the Premiership new boy

Manager: Steve Coppell
Owner: John Madejski OBE
Position at the end of last season: eighth in the Premiership
Head of comms: Andy West (left, front)

‘The press side of things is completely different in the Premier League,’ admits Read­ing head of comms Andy West.

When the team were promo­ted last season, the first thing West did was hire two more comms staff to cope with the surge in media interest.

Reading’s media team now holds two press days a week – one for the local media and one for the nationals.

As Reading is now a top-flight club, West is bombarded with calls from sports hacks, but his pol­icy is not to comment on spec­u­lation.

‘There is so much of it, but the deals have to be signed before we can say anything. There can be any number of twists and turns that could make you look pretty silly if you jump the gun,’ he explains. ‘There is also the danger you will alert other clubs that may be interested in the player in question.’

The club’s international reach is something West and his team are keen to develop. A recent tour to South Korea gave new boy Seol Ki-Hyeon a chance to play for Reading on his home turf and gave West an excellent chance to promote the club in the Asian media.

West was also recently inter­viewed on BBC World Service.

He is quick to dismiss any suggestion that Ki-Hyeon was signed with marketing in mind, but now he is an established member of the squad West is keen to maximise media interest around him.

The club also has players from Ecuador, Cameroon, France and Ireland, and West has been planning ways of using them to drum up support for Reading in their home countries.

West describes Reading as a ‘small club with big ambitions’, and that is a key element to his comms strategy.

‘We need to develop a presence that befits a top-ten club, and that means having an international reputation and a good commercial positioning too,’ he says.

‘Obviously we have to do the basics well and respond quickly and efficiently to enquiries, but it is very important that we make sure there is time to be strategic as well.’

On match days…
‘When we were in the Champion­ship we might have 40 journa­lists at a game. Now we’ll have more than 100 from news­papers, TV, radio and websites, and around 30 photographers too. There’s an international presence as well, with the South Korean press following Seol.’
On in-house comms…

West’s team consists of (left to right above) website manager Craig Mortimer, press officer Simon Heggie, publications manager Mark Bradley and comms assistant Abby Carter (not pictured).

Fans’ comms takes up most of the team’s time. The web­site gets 200,000 unique visi­t­ors a month and the print run for prog­rammes is around 8,000.

‘The crucial thing is not to ali­enate loyal supporters who supported us when we weren’t in the Premiership,’ says West.

CHELSEA: The big spender

Manager: Jose Mourinho
Owner: Roman Abramovich
Position at the end of last season: second in the Premiership
Director of comms and public affairs: Simon Greenberg (right)

With a Russian billionaire holding the purse strings, a flamboyant and contro­versial manager at the helm and a squad of high-profile and expensive international players in the dressing room, it is unsurprising the world’s press keep a keen eye on Chelsea FC.

The job of responding to this clamour for news is spread bet­ween Greenberg and his head of media Simon Taylor. Greenberg says the pair share media enquiries, but ‘major and corporate issues’ go to him.

Although he admits the hunger for football news is such that ‘every national paper rings us every day’, Greenberg reckons dealing with external media only takes up around half of his time. The rest of his day is concerned with internal comms for staff and players, print and broadcast media for fans, working with stake­hol­ders and sponsors, CSR and, perhaps surprisingly, public affairs.

‘All top clubs have to keep a toe in the political arena,’ he explains, ‘whether it is representing the club itself, as part of the Premier League or as a represen­ta­tive of English football.’

Although Greenberg and Taylor are the club’s key spokespeople, many journalists want to speak to the players themselves.

An ability to deal with the media is an important requirement of the modern professional footballer, and Chelsea has a prog­ramme of media training for the young academy players.

Greenberg is considering a prog­ramme for the senior team but most are experienced inter­nat­ion­als and used to dealing with the press already.

Part of the rationale behind Taylor’s appointment just under two years ago was to free up Greenberg’s time for more strategic comms work, but Green­berg admits it can sometimes prove difficult to dedicate time to planning when the club is playing three matches a week.

On match days…

‘For a big Champions League match – Barcelona for instance – we might have 200 journalists in. For a Premiership game it’ll be closer to 120,’ says Greenberg.

Greenberg says that he always makes sure he spends time in the dir­ectors’ box and in the press box during every game, and always has one eye on ‘the issues that are developing during the match’ so he can anticipate the questions for the post-match press conference.

On the in-house team…

Taylor is head of media and handles day-to-day press enquiries. The Chelsea TV station and the magazine are all created in-house, and head of editorial Emma Wilkinson is in charge of all internal media.

‘We are currently looking for a media officer, and are also looking for a head of CSR,’ adds Greenberg.

‘CSR can only get bigger and it makes sense to have someone working on it permanently.’



Tim Vine, head of PR for the Premier League, talks about the Premier League's new CSR showcase in this week's Video Podcast. Watch


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