‘P’ is for ‘Politics’: Getting Structured Dialogue with supporters’ trusts right

‘Structured Dialogue’ has been woven into the language of football administration. We have rules (like those introduced by the EFL requiring it twice a year between clubs and fans), directives, guidance, best practice.

Clubs operate fans forums, fans parliaments, assemblies, ‘focus groups’ (a new term in football, which I’m not yet certain differs from fans forums) – and of course, every club in the top 92 clubs requires an SLO. All well and good. But there’s often a problem that affects all of these: The ‘political’ element. Stay awake back there!

A supporters’ trust (or more rarely these days, another independent supporters’ group) will very often seek a relationship of its own with the club. But it’s not uncommon to find that some clubs don’t want to give undue prominence to one group over another. From the club’s perspective, vying for their attention might be a number of regional groups (the more ‘traditional’ ones centred around travel or social events for example), internet-based ‘groups’ (in the loosest sense – often literally just a Facebook page or Twitter handle), or perhaps the new phenomenon of ‘Ultra’ groups (usually groups of younger fans, concerned more with atmosphere and issues around ‘genuine’ match experience). It can be difficult enough dealing with these as it is. It can appear more so if the group wanting the relationship expresses regular doubts about the owners – or even is in active opposition. I can completely understand why you wouldn’t want to give preference to the supporters’ trust over the rest, because if you do, you might get a negative response from the other groups.

It’s my experience that a lot of the other forms of supporters’ group are very happy to be managed through the more general forum – but don’t take that as read in every situation. Personal contact in all cases is still important in managing all your relationships with organisations. What is true is that the DNA of other groups means they’re not as concerned about the strategic or the ‘structural’. And the supporters’ trust can be a useful ally, and sounding board, if you approach them right. In a relationship that has matured and has been looked after, they can help you audit, and effectively operate as a sort of kite-mark for your decisions – like those at Norwich City for example (or Fulham – see further down).

It’s important to understand what actually motivates each group – and supporters’ trusts in particular. They are, in most cases, quite ‘political‘. In practical terms, they want to understand what goes on under the bonnet at a club: why strategic decisions are made the way they are, what the state of the finances are and how they impact on investment in the stadium or squad, what the plans are to grow the fanbase. Their legally compliant, formalised structure provides aims related to influencing the ownership and operation of the club, and their mindset – the culture they come from – emerged from an era when communication between clubs and fans other than match-related issues was virtually non-existent, save fans being told what was happening after the event, or the the club/directors being subject to protests in the car park when things went wrong.

Just pick up David Conn’s ‘The Beautiful Game: Searching for the Soul of Football’, or read Ian King’s 200% football blog. These are the sort of stories fans tell each other, part of what creates the grand ‘narrative’, the experience of following a club. This is the culture that you need to get to know before you should make a decision about how you’re going to respond to their request.

Dialogue isn’t just broadcasting

This is the point at which the meaning of the word ‘Dialogue’ really matters. Dialogue and forms of two-way communication with football supporters is a new phenomenon, and primarily, ‘Dialogue’ needs to be seen by the participants involved in it as ‘valuable and productive in itself’ (this comes from PR theorists Kent and Taylor. Drop me a line if you want to know more).

The secondary part is that Dialogue should ‘create the opportunity or potential for for changes of view’. It’s important to distinguish between the process – a valuable and productive exchange – and the potential output – changes of perspective. Yet football struggles with the first, and often doesn’t consider the second. For example, ‘Structured Dialogue’ takes place between Leagues and organised supporters’ groups, but the issue of controversial televised fixtures only seems resolved in a spirit contrary to what Dialogue means: https://www.dailystar.co.uk/sport/football/650483/Chelsea-Premier-League-Christmas-Eve-Everton-Arsenal-Liverpool-Man-Utd and here: https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/liverpool-supporters-head-protest-against-13702679.

It’s important to underline the essential point made above: that just because Dialogue occurs, it doesn’t mean that changes will – or should – occur. What is important first is the process of dialogue being valuable and productive.

Other companies and organisations struggle with anything other than ‘broadcast mode’, and football is no exception.

It’s also worth pointing out here that although football clubs do get a lot of bad press in this area, there are good examples (I’ve already profiled Millwall and Norwich, and will do more soon). It’s also worth reading Jim McNamara’s ‘Creating an Architecture of Listening in Organisations‘ (University of Technology Sydney). It shows you just how much other companies and organisations struggle with anything other than ‘broadcast mode’, and football is no exception. However, football needs to recognise that the uniqueness of the business calls for it to embrace meaningful Dialogue.

The $64,000 question is ‘are their some steps I can follow?’ Yes, provided you remember that Structured Dialogue is about the to-and-fro of relationships, so in one sense simple guidance in this area is about as likely as one set of relationship advice applying to all couples!

If you’re a club:

  1. Try not to fear sitting down and talking to a supporters’ trust. Face-to-face is better, but even the phone will do to start. How many times have you built up a problem with someone in your head, or maybe over email, only to find that when you talk, the problems dissolve and you can reach a common position or understanding?
  2. Remember that supporters’ trusts are often on a bit of a journey themselves. A good example is the Fulham Supporters’ Trust, which started out as a campaign to reverse the decision by then owner Mohammed al-Fayed to move the club out of their Thames riverside home. In a different era now, formal Structured Dialogue exists between the group and across most levels of the club – both owners and executives. Having spent time with CEO Alistair Mackintosh, he clearly understands the importance of this particular relationship acutely.

If you’re a supporters’ trust/group:

  1. Assume a minimal level of understanding on the part of those you meet (but don’t patronise or get frustrated with them!). As I’ve outlined, everyone doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ what you are, or even why you exist – especially if they’ve just come in. You might have owners or executives who are new to football, or who haven’t seen your kind of group before. You need to educate them as much as you do your potential members, journalists, or other people you want to have a relationship with.
  2. Don’t expect instant progress. Remember that football clubs, although they aren’t in all ways exceptional – as I outlined earlier, they do have their own complexities: they are very people-driven organisations, and those running them have lots of demands on their time. The actual football season can also be something of a pain, especially around transfer-window time, on a matchday, or at a time of changes in key personnel like coaches/managers. You’ll find they often operate at breakneck speed. Think about running down a hill with armfuls of crockery, trying not to drop anything. You’re halfway there!

If you’re a club looking to move your relationships on, a supporters group looking for advice on how to approach Structured Dialogue, or you want advice on how to generally communicate more effectively with your supporters, drop me a line.


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