I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on supporters as ‘stakeholders’. Alongside terms like ‘engagement’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘structured relationships’ it’s become a term that is used a lot, and sadly, abused.
I’ve done some recent work on this area for the Liverpool supporters’ trust Spirit of Shankly (more on that soon), but what really provoked my interest was interviewing a series of chief executives, officials and journalists for the final piece of work for my Diploma in Public Relations, focusing on ‘dialogue’ and two-way communication at English football clubs.
The full cast list was The FA’s Andy Ambler (ex Fulham and most recently, Millwall Chief Executive), current chief executives Paul Barber (Brighton), Alistair Mackintosh (Fulham), Mark Catlin (Portsmouth), Erik Samuelson (Wimbledon), ex-Sheffield Wednesday Chair Lee Strafford, Jonathan Waite, Head of Supporter Services at Spurs, the new Supporters Direct CEO Ashley Brown and Matt Slater from the Press Association, who I interviewed to get a slightly more detached view of the issues.
I won’t be digging into the content of their interviews (as it was a piece of academic work, I’m not permitted to), but as someone who advises on stakeholder relations, as well as more traditional strategic communications and PR, the overall lessons were twofold: First, there are some genuinely encouraging trends. All of those I interviewed who work (or worked) at clubs practice varying types of genuine dialogue: they don’t just operate in broadcast mode. They are prepared to – and do – change their own point of view, and sometimes, actual plans, on the basis of discussing, understanding and accommodating supporters. More importantly, every one of them actually practised proper dialogue with supporters and their representatives in a way that meant that their decisions on sometimes contentious issues were usually right. I don’t really want to single anyone out as all of them had great examples, but though they seem to hide their light under a bushel a bit, Spurs should get some recognition for their relationship building, particularly through Jonathan Waite; and Millwall was particularly interesting, given they have for some years had an elected fan on the board, with full rights as a director. A lot of credit has to go to those directors who made this happen, chief executives and officials who have engaged constructively with this, and particularly US-based Chairman John Berylson for continuing to see the value in it. Millwall often get a bad press, but on this they should get full plaudits. And they’re reaping their rewards now, with the extraordinary campaign over The Den fought by fans, standing alongside the club.
The second, less pleasing part that football still has something of a problem with putting words about engagement into action – something that everyone recognised. It’s certainly been my experience – and the interviews bore it out – that although there are people who try to make genuine dialogue work, too many clubs are held back by fear, perhaps naivety, and need more help in this area. I also strongly believe that clubs also need to be careful not to use initiatives like fans forums or parliaments, as ways of sidelining or ‘managing’ supporters – particularly organised groups. I’ve seen it in a few cases recently, and my experience is it’s unhelpful and unhealthy for everyone.
The headline of this article was changed because of its similarity to one from a previous article.