Does dialogue without democracy work in football?

A friend of mine on Twitter asked an interesting question last week. I reproduce it below (I’m assuming he doesn’t mind my reproducing it, as it’s a good point that helps me to make an important one about the relationship between clubs and supporters):

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I make a reasonable assumption that what Tom is talking about here is providing supporters with a way of having meaningful input into the running of the football club – for example, finances, administration, investment, etc, so instead of the very generalised term ‘fan engagement’, which covers a multitude of sins, we’ll use the term that football now uses widely: ‘structured dialogue’.

A ‘democratic say’ in the club means someone – or more than one – elected to represent supporters in some way. It can be through a supporters’ trust and/or a form of ownership, or through another mechanism, but it’s usually got some kind of ‘formal’ agreement behind it, to enforce ‘rights and responsibilities’ (at least, that’s what I would always advise, for everyone’s comfort).

There can be a lot of confusion about what structured dialogue actually is, partly because it gets mixed up with the more Americanised and broader concept of ‘fan engagement’, but also because such a relationship can mean a number of things, and there can be a number of different ways in how that ‘dialogue’ is underpinned (in other words, what kind of agreements and structures make it function in the real world).

So, because words matter, first of all, let’s define ‘dialogue’ as a term. There is a widely accepted definition in my profession (PR) from Professor Anna Wierzbicka (I’ve linked to a pdf explaining it here), but below is a much briefer idea of what it is comes from PR academics (yes, they do exist!), Kent and Taylor:

‘Dialogue is less about process or method, than an orientation, a perspective…Dialogue creates equals of publics in relation to the organisation communicating’

Does this really matter? Yes. It does. Whilst some communication with supporters is better than none, to simply go into ‘broadcast mode’ (known as ‘press agentry’ or ‘public information’), or to seek to persuade supporters that you’re right about something and not leave it open for supporters to persuade you otherwise (known as ‘asymmetric’ communication), isn’t really the basis for dialogue, because dialogue requires you to be open to changing your mind about an issue(s).

Of course, letting the supporters know about how much money came in (income) last year probably isn’t something that you do in a ‘dialogic’ way, because there probably isn’t much of a conversation to be had beyond explaining that it totalled ‘£Xm’. But at all times what really matters is the idea that the purpose of ‘dialogue’ is the way you approach an issue, a discussion, a relationship.

So, taking ourselves back to Tom’s original point, which was ‘can you really have proper fan engagement without a democratic say in the club?’, to me the first step is to ensure that any form of structured dialogue has to have the right attitude from the participants.

Although you can have a democratic structure, legal or quasi-legal ‘rights’, processes and documents – even a rule underpinning your relationship (like that in the EFL requiring clubs to undertake structured dialogue with supporters), if both sides don’t approach it in the right spirit, with the right attitude, the right frame of mind – a ‘dialogic’ frame of mind – then it won’t work.

If you want to talk to me about ‘structured dialogue’, drop me a line. You can even register for a free chat about the issues at your club.

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