Football scores public relations own goal by Anne-Marie Batson

Football scores public relations own goal by Anne-Marie Batson

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Issues management specialist Anne-Marie Batson argues that recent events at UK football clubs Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic shows that clubs need to take best practice public relations engagement seriously. High profile football clubs found themselves under intense scrutiny in recent months.

Malky MacKay returned to work as Wigan  FC Manager whilst under a Football Association (FA) investigation.

Meanwhile former-Sheffield United player Ched Evans released on licence from prison in October and clubs considered re-signing him. Oldham Athletic FC is the latest team in talks with the Professional Football Association on signing Evans.

The response of both clubs to intense public criticism has done little to appease fans. In 2015 responding to potentially damaging issues needs effective planning and a swift response.

Sheffield United Football Club

The matter attracted more media attention after the Professional Football Association (PFA) requested Evans trained at Sheffield United. The club later withdrew its offer.

A statement on the website said “The reaction to this has been at an intensity that could not have been anticipated when first announced.”

The widely anticipated fallout showed the club failed to recognise the impact of Evan’s release. There appeared to be an unwillingness to act initially.

Even before Ched Evans was released, more than 160,000 people had signed a petition urging Sheffield United not to re-sign him.

After Evan’s release, high profile figures like Sky Sports presenter Charlie Webster, The Beautiful South singer song-writer Paul Heaton and other patrons resigned their positions from the Sheffield United Community Foundation.

Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill then requested her name be removed from a stand if Evans was re-signed. Even the deputy Prime Minister and constituent MP Nick Clegg voiced his concerns on his weekly LBC radio show.

Wigan Athletic Football Club

Wigan Athletic FC chairman Dave Whelan hired Malky MacKay as its new manager. MacKay is still under investigation by the FA over "sexist, racist and homophobic" text messages as manager at Cardiff FC.

Matters went from bad to worse when Whelan appeared to defend his decision, making comments to a national newspaper deemed to be ‘racist’ and ‘offensive’.  He accepted a FA charge on this matter, receiving a six-week ban from all football activity, and fined £50,000.

Conversation on social media was robust when the story broke. Strong and swift condemnation came from anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out and David Gold, chairman of West Ham.

Watching the two clubs leap from one misjudged response to another raised red flags. Various tweets called these situations poor public relations.

Statements such as these reflect on us as practitioners - it’s a battle to legitimise PR as a function.  I’ll show PR can stop issues becoming crises when they play out in the public arena.

Best practice engagement on the pitch and off

An unpopular decision will always raise comments. Football is a business and a brand. In the public eye, every move will come under intense scrutiny especially from supporters and media. Be prepared, create proactive plans and take action.

Identify potential problems early, look at its impact, anticipate audience expectation, seek independent opinions, weigh up the options and respond decisively.

In the case of Sheffield United, the public response to the online petition was a potential risk to the club. When unpopular decisions are made, acknowledge the perspective of fans, supporters and sponsors.

I believe the club should have issued a statement outlining its position after Evans’ release. Highlighting family and community values and acknowledge the difficult position of navigating this moral maze.

Dave Whelan wants Wigan back in the Barclays Premier League and I appreciate that he believed he’d made the right decision for the club.

But when speaking to the media, he failed to show any understanding of the controversy and this apparent indifference hurt the club’s standing with its communities and sponsors.

In the midst of issues like these, it is crucial to have spokespeople prepared to answer the difficult questions on a contentious appointment.

Before they go in front of the camera, PRs must be confident that spokespeople can connect in a credible, empathetic and compassionate manner.

These have been big tests for the clubs. There will be more to come. They have to look for warning signs, build credible plans and respond quickly and with an appreciation of the public mood.

High profile organisations like the BBC, Network Rail, the Government and the NHS are under intense scrutiny on a daily basis. Football clubs, in fact sport as a whole, can no longer sit outside this circle.

About Anne-Marie Batson

anne-marieAnne-Marie is a issues management specialist and Public Relations & Communications Account Manager at Keeble Brown. Connect with her via Twitter @AnnemarieBatson.

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