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Guest post: NUFC, social media and Joe Kinnear 2.0

Lifelong Newcastle-supporter Tom Chaplin wants to engage with the club via social media about its decision to recruit Joe Kinnear as Director of Football, but finds the club shouting about branded duvets and luggage. You couldn’t make it up.

In a previous life I wrote the 2009 plays ‘You Couldn’t Make It Up’ and ‘You Really Couldn’t Make It Up’ with my dad Michael Chaplin for Newcastle’s Live Theatre.

It was, I suppose you could describe it, an exposé of everything that was wrong with modern football. We examined in a piece of verbatim theatre -through the eyes of journalists, commentators, club insiders and its long suffering fans – the slow, painful slide into chaos and ultimately relegation of our dearly beloved Newcastle united.

A Season to Forget

The season of 2008/09 goes down in folklore as the season Newcastle United truly went belly up. Sackings, resignations, overpaid and under performing (and warring) stars. The return (and swift, acrimonious departure) of the ‘messiah’ – club legend Kevin Keegan. The return (and swift, acrimonious departure) of another club legend – former striker Alan Shearer. The season really was the perfect storm. An example – from hapless owner and Sports Direct magnate Mike Ashley – of how not to run a club brimming with potential.

It’s hard to believe, four years on, that such a sure-footed talent for ripping public relations defeat from the jaws of victory could remain at the club that Sir Bobby Robson described as the cathedral on the hill. But it does.

More Pain

Barely twelve months after a shock fifth place finish in the Premier League and a Manager of the Year award for team boss Alan Pardew, Newcastle are – for want of a better phrase – back in the sh*t.

To give Ashley credit there has been some bright spots in the four years since relegation. Instant promotion, cheap tickets, investment in young playing talent, a sensible wage structure, a charge up the league.

But! There have been own goals too. Big ones. The shambolic, booze filled attempt to flog the club to rich investors in alcohol dry Dubai. The renaming of St James Park for cold hard cash. The payday loans shirt sponsorship deal in one of the UK recessions hardest hit cities. And now this…

Cometh the hour, cometh a man…

A poor season on the pitch has led to the rehiring of Joe Kinnear. A man so versed in the art of the public cock up he makes Prince Philip look positively polished. Kinnear was originally brought back from the wilderness (neigh the dark ages) by Ashley to manage the team during the relegation season having been out of the game for years.

Kinnear’s first time in charge was nothing if not newsworthy. Five wins in 20 matches. A talent for exaggeration. The now infamous expletive-fueled rant at the press – kick back, enjoy – I’ll still be here when you get back. And finally a heart attack that put an end to his season and his time in the job, that resulted in him pinning relegation on everybody and anybody else.

The boss

So Kinnear was rehired recently, and this time as Director of Football. The most powerful role at the club for a man so clearly under qualified, it’s akin to putting Frank Spencer (ask your parents, kids) in charge of the United Nations.

He announced his arrival ahead of any official announcement with a startling interview with talkSPORT radio full of bold predictions and a bunch of glaring errors. My personal favourites are the mistakes he made in naming his boss Derek Llambias “David Llambeezee”, and his star player, Frenchman Yohan Cabaye “Yohan Kebab”.

Honestly, you really seriously couldn’t make it up.

Someone’s managing this situation though, right?

Right? Wrong. With my (new) Social hat on, it was something smaller, something more subtle than Kinnear’s ramblings that caught my eye in this whole saga. How were the club handling this loose cannon?

“How is Newcastle’s comms team coping with the Kinnear fallout?” I hear you ask. Why, they were doing this of course:

And this:

And this:


They were battening down the hatches. Smoke and mirrors. La-la-la, it’s not happening. Auto pilot was flicked to on. They seemed to be hoping it would all just go away, which in this connected age is just suicide.

Backlash

A large number of fans, as you can probably imagine, took to twitter and homed in on the @NUFCOfficial account to vent their fury. Some were vicious, some were humorous, but without fail all showed how much the club meant to them.

All the club had to do to appease critics, to soften the blow as it were, was to engage. Join the debate, even in a measured way. Show the supporters, the ‘customers’ as fans are increasingly being described, that their opinions mattered.

There’s no way of telling, of course, how many NUFC branded suitcases are headed for sunnier climbs this summer as a result of the club’s efforts to flog merchandise via Twitter. A safe bet in the circumstances though is that it wasn’t very effective.

Which all begs the question: why? Why bother with sales tweets? Why have an instant communication tool, a means to engage directly with passionate fans, and not use it?

tom-chaplinAbout the author
Tom Chaplin is the Social & Digital Marketing Manager at healthcare software developers Digital Spark, is North East born and bred and a long suffering supporter of Newcastle United. You can follow Tom on Twitter @MrTomChaplin.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

5 Comments

  1. All sorts of issues surrounding recent communications from Newcastle United. So many questions.

    Firstly why let Joe announce his new position when obviously he is notoriously bad at dealing with the press?

    Once that had happened we sat back and waited for confirmation from the club – nothing but adverts via Twitter for three days. The clubs press officer Wendy Taylor literally hasn’t tweeted a single tweet since Joe was appointed. You would assume that she and her colleagues were desperately trying to do the right thing during this debacle but were overruled – incredibly allowing Joe Kinnear to keep doing car crash interview after car crash interview with no one stopping him.

    By this stage was Joe in charge? Did this mean no one had the clout to stop him within the club? In which case was he effectively shutting up his own comms team?

    When the fans announced a meeting Wendy was one of the club staff who attended and, oddly, while the fans put together a list of questions they wanted answering she presumably wasn’t allowed to answer them as she said nothing. Again, strangely a friend of Kinnear’s was allowed to speak on Joe’s behalf, rather than a comms professional.

    The other issue here – if this was being treated as a listening exercise then why not use the social media platforms to do that? Surely a must better cross section (at a quarter of a million followers) than 200 people with nothing better to do at 6pm on a weekday evening.

    Ultimately Newcastle have proved that they aren’t going to listen. Wendy and her team have my sympathies because you can’t imagine any of this is something they’re comfortable with.

    We have to think of Newcastle as we do Ryan Air and indeed Sports Direct. Tickets prices have been cut, which is a good thing but TV revenue has increased. Keeping fans happy is hardly a priority. Take it or leave it.

    As simply a marketing exercise for Sports Direct the balance of investment set against benefit comes with Newcastle holding their own in the premiership. Challenging at the top would be too expensive – dropping out would render the club and SD brand invisible. Mike Ashley clearly doesn’t see any benefit in public relations of any kind (our sponsor is essentially a loan shark after all).

    Not exactly a scientific approach but I walked round the MetroCentre the other day and didn’t see a single Newcastle shirt and the club shop was empty too. With those wearing the news shirts with sponsor’s logos being dubbed “Wonga Wankers” it’s not hard to see why.

    Could someone like Ashley who is a successful business person have got this so wrong – or are is his aims just different to the fans?

  2. Some great points, thanks for your comments Steve. Forget Graham Taylor, I have a little insight into Wendy Taylor’s position and she truly is doing The Impossible Job! Imagine being the communicator for a man who says nothing and cares even less for what people are saying to or about him. An exercise in futility!

  3. Hi Tom, I’ve only just found this. Great blog. As a fellow Magpie working in communications, you’ve summed up my dismay about the latest debacle/s.

    You’re right, social media could help rebuild relations between the club and its fans. Trouble is, I don’t think the need for engagement is understood by a regime that has a very narrow ‘sell products, make money’ mentality. The club has simply extended that philosophy to social media, using it as just another billboard to broadcast a one-way message. You could almost conclude that they actually don’t care at all?!

    In most areas of commerce, showing such disregard for your public would quickly drive them into the arms of a competitor. Trouble is, in football you cannot switch to another supplier in quite the same way. The mistake the club makes is to assume, therefore, that we’re already engaged. That our loyalty is a given and no effort is required to maintain or enhance it. It’s shameful.

    But I think (hope?) that’s beginning to change. I’m hearing of more disillusionment than ever – and it’s starting to reflect in sales of season tickets and merchandise. NUFC needs to change its approach fundamentally, and embrace the necessity of a more honest, transparent and empathetic relationship with fans. Will it? Hmm.

    For what it’s worth, I think the dreadful sequence of events around Joe Kinnear’s appointment/interviews incited so much anger on Tyneside that social media outreach would have been futile at best and incendiary at worst. The damage was already done, really.

    But hey, let’s look to the future. In the couple of weeks since your post, has anything proactive been done to ingratiate Mr Kinnear or demonstrate either his or the owner’s commitment to the club and its fans? No. Ok, well maybe it’s better that actions speak louder than words in this case. So maybe he’s dedicated himself to some ‘quick wins’ to reassure everyone of his value? No? Not that either? He’s achieved nothing at all in the best part of 2 months and, as I write, we are the only Premiership club not to sign a senior player?! You really couldn’t make it up, could you?!

    More generally, I think the way football clubs use/abuse/ignore social media in their efforts to converse with fans is an interesting topic – and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

    Anyway, I’ll shut up now and just say thanks again for the post – and your brilliant stage production, which has earned a rightful and permanent place in geordie folklore.

  4. Nick H,

    Thanks so much for your reply.

    Very interesting points – certainly the idea that the horse had bolted once Kinnear had shot his mouth off, hence the silence, has credence.

    I think you’re right about the “sell” mentality of the club. My own feeling is that Ashley hasn’t the stomach for a full tilt at anything approaching success and as long as we stay in the Premier League he’ll be happy at all the attention Sports Direct gets. Actually it’s interesting to note that our “healthy” bank balance followed a stint in the Championship?!

    As an aside I recently read a really interesting and largely positive article (understandably given the subject matter) about the Sports Direct success story and the staff share scheme. In it, the author suggested the scruffy market stall appearance of SD was a deliberate and clever marketing ploy! Still trying to work that one out!

    Finally, thanks so much for the kind words on the play. It was, surprisingly given the subject matter – but largely because of it of course, one of the best professional experiences of my life. Very cathartic anyway!

    Best wishes,

    Tom

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