The language of Fan Engagement: ‘The critical friend’

One of the most important phrases in fan engagement or fan relations is the term the ‘critical friend’.

It is a phrase that many supporters’ organisations these days use, supporters’ trusts in particular. Indeed, part of the whole emergence of this type of fan organisation came from the establishment of the first supporters’ trusts at Northampton Town FC. Most specifically, the NTFC  Trust came about precisely because the club was not receiving proper scrutiny in the darker days of the 1990s, and faced ruin.

The phrase is meant to mean, like you might do with a friend, speaking honestly about problems that you have with what they’re doing, why, and what might be done to help do it differently – or not at all. It’s not about the right to be rude or offensive – and criticising the Chairman’s choice of attire is certainly not what it’s about, clearly! To understand it best, you should think about it alongside that other phrase: the idea that you both share similar aims – often referred to as ‘we all want what’s best for the club’.

Of course, such a broad term as ‘we all want the best for the club’ isn’t the most self-explanatory of phrases, and it can cause confusion in itself. Either way, the notion of the ‘critical friend’ takes a lot of getting used to for football clubs in general (and I’ve seen it in happen many other countries as well), but especially in the UK where there’s a tradition of an owner being in charge, and having the right to do what they want, in broad terms. Football clubs haven’t been used to having to justify themselves to ‘outsiders’ – which is often how fans can be seen in this context, especially over difficult issues.

It’s difficult because owners, directors, and officials often use the language of ‘us’, ‘we’, outwardly meaning that ‘we’re all in it together’, but the truth is, a lot of them still struggle to understand what ‘us’ actually means to fans. I also think that fans don’t always understand exactly what the pressures are for a football club – financially, organisationally. The fact that ‘fan engagement’ is still entrenched in the language of ‘customer service’, marketing and sales makes things even particularly difficult. 

In the world of fandom – particularly organised groups – ‘critical friend’ means ‘we’re not afraid to tell you what we think’, and sometimes, because of how they’re set up and structured (a supporters’ trust particularly is required by its rules them to operate as an independent-minded body focused on the long-term position of the club in its community), they might decide to do something that is perceived to be against the interests more specifically of senior officials, shareholders, directors etc. On the other side ‘we’re not afraid to tell you what we think’ can often sound more like ‘you’re no good at this’, or worse still, as some kind of disloyalty to the club. It can feel like you’re being attacked.

At Plymouth Argyle, the Argyle Fans Trust (AFT) has just ceased regular meetings with the club, and there seems to be disagreement as to how this has come about, but it has. The club claims amongst other things that it reduced the frequency of meetings between CEO Martyn Starnes and the AFT for practical reasons (the club say they simply didn’t need as many), but the AFT say they’ve pulled out of the meetings because the organisation has been subject to a ‘series of punitive measures’ as a result of their lodging a successful ACV (Asset of Community Value) application on Home Park, and subsequently receiving the support of the council.

So what do clubs need to do in these circumstances, and what should supporters’ organisations do? A lot of the advice I would give to either party is to always, unless it’s clearly impossible, retain contact. There are of course moments where that’s very difficult – even impossible, and currently the likes of Hull, Blackpool and Blackburn are examples of where it seems trust has broken down permanently, though the judgement can be quite fine at times. But my advice in all but the most extreme cases, even if you need a third party to broker it, try not to pull down the shutters. And even in the worst cases, it’s always worth keeping the channels open just in case minds change.

Secondly, I’ve found that the instinct of a lot of people on both sides is to reach for the number of the local journalist, rather than the club. But ‘Club slams trust/trust slams club over xxxxxxx’, might make a decent headline, but it’s the template for more friction. Both sides have to be mature enough to understand each other’s’ position, both need to avoid becoming entrenched.

I think we all forget in football, whether you’re coming at it as a fan, official, director or governing body, that we all speak at best different dialects, and even sometimes completely different languages, even if the language of football is common. And when it’s related to finances, or the stadium, what you do as a club in these areas can if handled badly, often lead to suspicion, then exasperation on the other side, and sadly, further mudslinging.

If clubs want to ensure less rocky moments, and supporters’ organisations, better respect and recognition of their role as that ‘critical friend’, it’s important to approach difficult issues with the attitude that disagreements are often short-term, and can be resolved by communicating and working through them. So arrange a meeting with the relevant person and leave that door open. Whether you’re a supporters’ group or a club official, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone, have a chat at the ground.

And whatever you do, don’t just talk, try listening as well.

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