Where do fans fit?

I’m looking at communications practice at English football clubs as part of my CIPR PR Diploma personal project. Specifically, I’m looking at whether we see much two-way ‘symmetrical’ communications (where both sides are prepared to change their positions as a result of the relationship and conversations attached to it), why clubs (and sometimes fans too) are often so poor at it, and how concepts of ‘dialogue’ as a PR tool could help to realise better communications. (If you want to read more about how it isn’t just football that doesn’t always do it well, this paper from Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney is a good starter.)

One thing I am looking at is where supporters are placed in terms of their strategic position in the club. I’ve often seen the supporter-services/fan engagement relationship placed within a marketing, customer-relations function. At one Premier League club I know of, the role was within the Digital Marketing side of the business, which doesn’t really add up either, as it seems to me to be a sub-section of marketing itself.

So what’s the problem, and as long as fans are being ‘engaged with’, does it even matter? Yes. It matters. A lot. The reason it matters is the same reason that when I used to deal with, for example, The Football League/EFL, I would talk directly to John Nagle – their (now former) head of communications. Someone more likely to be concerned with the public image, perception, reputation etc of the organisation was far more likely to be able to understand where the relationship between, in this case Supporters Direct (SD) and the EFL should sit. At the best companies and organisations, you need those who understand the key relationships, scan the horizon for potential problems, and solve them – before they come up, preferably.

If your relationships with fans are all placed within a marketing or customer context to deal with everything, you’re too busy looking at them as units of consumption, who at best need consistent messaging, quality product launches and clean toilets. Marketing as a function simply isn’t set up to carefully negotiate the ‘political’ problems that occur between stakeholders (in this case, supporters), their representatives, and clubs, and I don’t know anyone concerned with marketing who would claim they are. That doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t be marketed or sold to: I’m talking about how fans are positioned, and whether they’re demonstrably more ‘customers’ or ‘stakeholders’.

Even where the structure is right, it’s often about the culture too. Although I was fortunate enough to work for SD and learned a huge amount about the importance of structure, formality, rules, I also learned that culture matters too: how does the CEO regard fans? Does the head of communications use the relationships with them as intelligence gathering exercises, or are they too busy gathering intelligence on them, regarding them as a tricky group to be managed, not to be embraced and with whom to have dialogue? But structure must be observed, as all that is for nothing if it can be changed with the owner, CEO, or head of comms. Preferably it should be underpinned by formal agreement. There’s nothing to fear with formality – it just means we all know where we stand.

Yesterday I interviewed with Jonathan Waite, Head of Supporter Services at Spurs. I can’t go into the detail for the same reason as with my interview with Paul Barber last week (coincidentally, a former executive director at Spurs too) – it was done as an academic exercise, but an important detail for me is they have the relationship structurally correct, placing Jonathan’s role within communications. That makes a big difference, and this sort of structure should I believe be encouraged.

I’m sure Spurs fans have reasons to complain about some of the things that their club do, and I’m not here to address that. What I do believe however we should do if we care about making football clubs more communicative, more attuned to dialogue instead of broadcasting or propaganda, is to praise when they get it right.


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