Knowing when to stop: Lessons for clubs and supporters’ groups in Structured Dialogue

This follows on from a recent piece I wrote about dealing with the often very ‘political’ nature of organised supporters’ groups. The jumping-off point is a very public dispute, the latest in a series, between Hull City supporters and the club, which was played out in a recent series of articles in the Hull Daily Mail, and other local media.

The disagreement centres around the supporters’ committee meetings established by the club to attempt to build bridges between the club and supporters after a long period of strained relationships, and the club calling off the latest following public comment by one group.

Much of the original strain between club and supporters’ emanates from the attempt by Chairman and owner Assem Allam to change the official name of the football club to Hull City Tigers in 2013, and the campaign from the supporters to oppose it. Ultimately, nothing changed, but the relationships have been seriously damaged ever since. The club has made further poor moves, for example removing matchday concessions – something ruled out of order by an FA panel. However, it has now established structured dialogue with the various groups, and has been outwardly positive about its intentions.

In the latest spat, the club cancelled a meeting of the recently established Supporters’ Committee following comments that it took as ‘threatening’ from the supporters’ trust.

This might seem rather heavy handed – after all, as the trust chair Geoff Bielby said, he was simply warning that things could easily deteriorate were things not to change. But the club has been – outwardly at least – willing to play ball, and sometimes diplomacy like this can be painstakingly slow.

Without commenting on the specifics of this issue, as I’m not close enough too it, it’s worth raising the wider issue about how important judgement is from both sides where there’s a contentious issue in a relationship between club and fans. Here are a couple of thoughts:

For the supporters’ group

stop_sign_clip_art

Before you reach for the comment button, pause: do you need to say it? In an age where social media, the availability of podcasting and the likes of Fan TV has liberated us all to become opinionated to the world about anything from the price of a pint to whether the club’s youth policy is effective enough, the skill in communication is often these days what you don’t say, rather than what you do.

For the club

stop_sign_clip_art

It’s very easy to come across as thin skinned and unable to deal with criticism. It’s damned hard when the media will play out every negative element of the relationship in front of your eyes, and you’re getting doorstepped for comment. But sometimes the best thing is to say nothing, don’t play it out in public, and maybe talk about it face-to-face. The media – especially locally – is under huge pressure to justify its existence, so undermined it is by the technological revolution we’re all part of.

There are constantly bumps in the road in all relationships. Football clubs are tricky places to execute perfection where such relationships are concerned, because, as I said in another recent piece, running a club can be a very precarious business. The pressures are huge, and the margins between success and failure, very, very thin. For organised supporters’ groups, they’re expected to be on the ball, out there, responding to important issues to their members and the wider fanbase, and they’re run almost exclusively by volunteers.

These aren’t golden rules. There are no absolutes. It’s almost always about judgement, and we’re all constantly under pressure to exercise it.

If you want to find out more about Structured Dialogue, or how to more effectively communicate with your supporters, contact me.

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