Charlton Athletic and the return of Comical Ali

Charlton Athletic is a club that once was admired: as a mass, they fought their way back from the brink, sharing at Selhurst Park, left to rot by a council that cared not one iota about the future of their borough’s football club, until that is their political position was threatened by the Valley Party and its 15,000+ votes. They undoubtedly inspired Brighton and Hove Albion and their battle to return; and I know from direct, personal experience that they provided inspiration to Wimbledon fans as we set about our mammoth task in 2001. They are rightly regarded as having helped tend the roots for the movement that now sees clubs run and part-owned by their fans, and tens of thousands of fans prepared to walk out of a match over the danger of high ticket prices.

But, blink and you might have missed the transformation: Charlton have become a different type of example: one of how to reduce a hard-earned reputation to ashes in a few years. Charlton’s ‘reputation’ was the thing most admired by the football-going public; their essence. Yet in a few short years, owner Roland Duchatelet and Chief Executive Katrien Meire have reduced them to a laughing stock. Ok. It’s not easy running a football club. I know that; it’s a tough place to operate because of the pressure – often self-generated I might add, but it is genuinely tough sometimes. And knowing how to deal and genuinely engage with your primary ‘customers’ – fans – isn’t like any other business (and arguably, few other sports). Most fans – especially the ‘organised’ ones, the activists –  don’t want to be sold stuff; they want something to love, and to be loved back by it. Even if that sounds silly, it’s true; ‘reciprocity’ is what it’s all about. And if the thing you love doesn’t reciprocate, that’s a broken relationship with your sweetheart.

And ok, Meire – and even Duchatelet – would admit to having made some silly, avoidable mistakes and curious judgement calls that could be forgiven: mysterious ‘experts’ on team selection; adverts banned by the ASA for ‘inappropriate content‘ (fwiw, it was a bit basic, but I suppose it was original).

But it’s not simply that; we all make mistakes, and I’d venture to suggest that it’s unfair to lay into them too much on that basis. It’s more the way they’re handling their errors that concerns me. They appear to either have decided, or been advised by a PR professional (which is worse, in my opinion), that the best way of mitigating the bad decisions, bringing the majority of people back onside, is to ‘batten down the hatches’.

It reminds me of ‘Comical Ali’ during the second Iraq War: whilst everything was collapsing around him, he was insisting that things were perfectly normal. I can tell you, as a professional both in football and PR & communications, that it’s not. What they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work. It will fail. If it hasn’t already. And I don’t understand why they think this is a good approach.

Naturally, the lion’s share of my sympathy goes to the fans; I know how it feels to be in that situation personally, and professionally I’ve seen it and similar situations to it, too many times. But a bit of my heart goes out to Meire particularly, but also Richard Murray and especially to the people around the Club who I’m sure won’t be agreeing that the approach is productive. I’ve never met De Mere, but if I did, the first thing I’d do is sit her down and ask what on earth she’s expecting to gain from it.

So what is the solution? That’s a good question, and the first thing to say is that I’m not sure whether it’s rescuable, whether the ‘point of no return’ has been reached; where even the most patient of fans won’t listen anymore. Because that moment comes, and is all too often misread or ignored by owners and officials too embedded in their own way of doing things. And they pay for it. They always do.

But if it is – and it is a big if – rescuable, the second thing to do is be honest, and keep being honest. Go to fans forums, do phone-ins, and do loads of ‘mea culpa’, loads of ‘we’re sorry, and you’ve every right to be angry.’ Tony Blair used to use it and it made people less inclined to hate him, and took the pressure off the government. And quite frankly, it’s not what people would be expecting when you’ve made mistakes; big mistakes. Also, don’t talk about ‘fan engagement’ whilst you do this: no-one wants to hear that phrase. Saying sorry isn’t about ‘engaging’; it’s about apologising.

I have a theory that tends to be borne out, which is that when people see someone who is quite clearly and genuinely asking to be forgiven for their mistakes, and who quite obviously wants to make amends, most of the population are at least amenable to that. The problem is that I’m not sure if Roland Duchatelet would be willing to do it, and I think he might have to be prepared to, along with Meire and the rest of those responsible on the board.

As for the rest of it, I’d be seeking forgiveness first, and then worry about the rest as that pans out.

So why do football clubs do this? I don’t know. So many disasters should tell any PR operating anywhere that managing a crisis in the way that Charlton are is doomed to failure: BP and David Cameron’s tax affairs are two that spring to mind. Crisis crisis management PR is hard, and there’s a tendency to advise that total control and highly selective, direct contact with the general public is all that matters, and for the initial stages in some crises, whilst you try to get a handle on what’s gone wrong, that might be necessary. I used it once on the appointment of a Chief Executive at Supporters Direct, and it was effective for a period whilst I established the necessary strategy to get on top of the issues.

But every bit of evidence that I’ve seen over the years, both within football and outside, tells me that Charlton – and whoever is advising them – are making a big mistake.

Corrected, as the Valley Party actually received more like 15,000 votes in the elections to Greenwich Council 


7 Replies to “Charlton Athletic and the return of Comical Ali”

  1. Kevin,

    Unfortunately, it’s too far gone. Duchatelet fails to ‘engage’ full-stop now but when he has in the past it’s been a disaster. He hasn’t seen a live match for two years and has only seen us play twice, ever. Meire also refused to listen to the supporters for the first 18 months – “too busy fighting a relegation battle” – until the boiler-room had been stoked so much that a fire was raging out-of-control and the various disaffected fans groups form the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet with the press intention of moving the Belgians on at all costs.

    Meire has been ticking ‘Fans Forum’ boxes for awhile by meeting an anonymous group of about a dozen periodically and dealing with the hygiene factors such as the price of bovril and running water in the bogs. She has repeatedly acknowledged mistakes of the past but then continues making them because the acknowledgement is another tick-in-the-box. She has employed Pitch PR but it’s all damage limitations. She went on talkSport last week and wheeled out all her old arguments which the clubs supporters know to be wafer thin or patiently lies.

    Duchatelet has no strategy for his ‘network of clubs’ now FFP is dead and is looking to sell despite what Meire says. In the meantime she is shrinking the club and it’s cost-base so that farmed player sales might tip them into profit and recover some of her £40m of losses.


    1. Thanks Dave. I thought that it was probably the case that things had gone too far there, but I thought it worth pointing out a few truths about the way they’re positioning themselves. Sad to see such a terrible mess at a club that as I said is so admired by so many. I hope something good can come out this. Cheers for the comment. Kev


  2. Thanks for the piece Kev. It’s pretty much on the money, as Dave says it’s gone way too far now – but the phrase that hit me when reading your piece was “what on earth is she expecting to gain from it.” And it’s been this way since day one. I think she had an opportunity at the end of her first season to do what you suggested, to show some humility, some vulnerability. Instead she blocked those seeking genuine dialogue, in particular the Supporters’ Trust, and went on the offensive on anyone who didn’t see things her way.

    For Meire I think the truth is that she has too much of a focus on her own career at the expense of running the club; although that presumes she is capable of the latter, and the evidence clearly shows she is not. Therefore her battle is not one of how to recover things for the good of the club, but how to defend her increasingly damaged reputation. Engaging a PR firm was surely the last throw of the dice, but that has spectacularly backfired, as you, I and countless others could have told her (and many did).

    Right now the tactic seems to be to paint protesters as criminals and trouble makers. The problem with that is that they’re, in her own terms, her customers – and attendances as low as 5.5k this season attests to the folly of that approach. Supporters have simply felt no longer part of Meire and Duchatelet’s Charlton and in many cases have gone to find somewhere they can belong, such as Dartford or Ebbsfleet.

    They have undone 20-30 years of hard work in less than 3 years. The remaining few apologists for the regime must be truly blind.


    1. Thanks Rich. Yes, it does appear to be more about salvaging individual reputations, rather than even a necessarily graceful or well managed ‘exit’. Personally speaking, if an exit is what she’s after, some of what I’ve suggested would seem to be just the ticket, but as the story about plain clothed ‘security’ at the Valley would seem to suggest, that just makes it all look rather like the last days of Rome. Maybe not so grand, but you see my point. I’m available if they decide they want to change their approach, of course. I’m not expecting my phone to ring off the hook though 😉


  3. Excellent piece Kevin. As you rightly point the relationship between fans and their club has more in common with a love affair than it does with a brand-customer relationship. If my personal relationship was going wrong, that last thing I’d do is execute a ‘boyfriend engagement programme’ over some prawn sandwiches. We reached the point of no return with Roland and Katrien months ago. They must know by now need to go. It just needs to happen quickly and elegantly. Once they are gone, we can be sure that Charlton fans will pick up the pieces of the relationship and we’all tribe again. Love runs deep


    1. Lovely way to put what is such a sad but avoidable set of circumstances. I particularly like the ‘boyfriend engagement programme. I’m sure someone will have a punt at that at some point!


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