Focus Groups for Football Clubs – some lessons

I feel very lucky doing the kind of work I do. I love the interaction with supporters, with officials, directors, owners. There are so many dynamics and relationships in a football club, and they need understanding, people need listening to, conversations need to happen.

I’m even luckier that from time-to-time I get to indulge in a project really close to my heart, and so it is that I’m currently working with another consultant on a review of communications, messaging and brand for AFC Wimbledon. I’ve been able to provide some professional advice and support on the big issues, but where I’ve been really active has been in surveying, and in particular, running several focus groups.

Without delving into the details, as the process is still in train and has to be respected, it’s been illuminating to me professionally to be able to help guide some really constructive discussions on what Wimbledon as a club means to its supporters – and in this case its owners.

We can all agree about how important it is to listen to others, but the problem can often be that we don’t necessarily choose the right way to do it. We might focus too much on surveying, or very tightly managed consultative groups. And we might default to a presentation and Q&A, rather a conversation.

Giving Wimbledon supporters, albeit only relatively small groups of them, the opportunity to express how they feel about the direction of the club as it prepares to return to its Plough Lane home, and following 15 years of nearly unbroken success, has been fascinating and enjoyable. There has been a maturity to the discussion that I hoped for, but which has exceeded my expectations. It has justified my view that if you give people the chance to to engage meaningfully, it can reap rewards.

Here’s a brief takeaway from my experiences so far:

  1. Don’t try to perfect the process: I’ve followed some professional guidelines, like this from B2B International and thought carefully about what I’m doing, but in many ways it’s about getting on with it, and guiding a discussion, not perfecting a process.
  2. Expect criticism, but deal with it constructively: There is bound to be some, but reflect on it, don’t bristle. Admittedly, in football it can be a bit different to other organisations or businesses (how many businesses have to deal with their ‘customers’ singing rude songs at them when things aren’t working so well?!), but the face-to-face nature of this process is really worthwhile, most of all because where there is criticism, it can be discussed, understood better and in context.
  3. Use a third party where you can: I’m not divorced from the whole issue, as I’m a fan of the club myself. Some people might consider that a conflict of interest, but professionally I don’t believe it is one that can’t be managed. The key is that I’m seen as someone who can allow people to have the conversation they want, without pushing it in a pre-determined direction. Gentle probing and encouragement have I believe, really opened up people’s confidence to talk about things as they see them.

 

Supporters: Stakeholders or a public order problem?|Video Blog

Both the language and actions of clubs and the football authorities increasingly see supporters as stakeholders in the game, with Structured Dialogue as a means of managing those relationships.

Yet the law concerning the behaviour of football supporters is very tightly defined through acts such the Football Offences Act. The result is that supporters are more often treated as a ‘public order’ issue – a potential problem to be managed, not a partner to be worked with.

In my first video blog I explore this clash of perspectives, the power of the narrative around fans and most importantly, the law. I try to understand whether this affects the ability of clubs, the authorities and supporters to fully embrace Structured Dialogue.

Relationship building at Norwich City | Case Study

It’s easy to point out the mistakes when it comes to clubs and their relationship with supporters, and I’ve seen my fair share. But what’s equally important is to show the good, the successful – otherwise, how else does good practice spread, and how do we learn and improve?

Norwich City FC is a privately owned football club, with thousands of individual shareholders. Over the years they have often been recognised as having good relationships with supporters – even during more difficult times like their relegation to League One in 2009. So how have they done this? A large part of it has been about their formal relationship with supporters, which at Norwich is with the Canaries (Supporters’) Trust (CST).

CST Secretary, Mike Reynolds, explains how the trust emerged as the main supporters group at the club:

“The relationship really built up after the inaugural Supporters Direct Conference at Birkbeck College (in 2001). The owners (Delia Smith and husband, Michael Wynne-Jones) asked me to attend and report back. They recognised from the outset that they needed a group they could deal with that had legitimacy – one with a democratic structure behind it. Previously there was the Independent Supporters Association, which was formed in response to supporter discontent and was more radical in its approach than the Trust. But it was also somewhat dependent upon discord between club and fans for its momentum. There was some animosity between the two groups but the Trust has lasted the course whereas the Independent Supporters Association was wound up by its committee three years ago.”

I have increasingly seen the fundamental importance in what might be called the ‘cultural’ aspect – the actual working relationship, and the attitude of each party, and building and maintaining of trust.

Although structured dialogue (or ‘structured relationships’ as they are often known) is as the name suggests formality is important, often to help navigate through difficult times, I increasingly see the fundamental importance in what I call the ‘cultural’ aspect – the actual working relationship, the attitude of each party, and the building and maintaining of trust. I saw this underscored in some recent research I carried out with a series of Chief Executives and experts in English club football (here’s a short feature on my interview with Paul Barber from Brighton and Hove Albion). There are several – including at Fulham under Alistair Mackintosh as well as Paul Barber – where this is a fundamental feature – alongside more formal processes.

At Norwich the relationship has lasted, largely, through several Chief Executives, as Mike explains: “Over time, what happened at Norwich was that we built the relationship with the CEO (Neil Doncaster, and then David McNally), who really did take on board the trust as the front-end of fan communication.”

However, there was a recent intervening period when Jez Moxey, former Wolves CEO, came in, and he didn’t want to talk: “Jez Moxey’s view was that he didn’t need the relationships. As far as he was concerned, in his previous role, he didn’t even have board meetings, and just spoke with Steve Morgan (then Wolves owner) and that was it. However, fairly quickly the club decided they wanted a different approach, and we’re now back and working with a new Managing Director, Steve Stone (not the ex-England and Forest midfielder!). The relationship with Jez Moxey couldn’t have got any lower and it’s very rapidly gone back to where it was, which is great” Maybe this bump in the road underscores the need to establish more formalised agreements.

So are they looking at such agreements for the future? This also matters in terms of changes of ownership – e.g.: the day that Delia Smith and Michael Wynne-Jones have had enough. 

On ownership, Mike explains: “We know what she’s (Delia Smith) doing when she hands over the reins. It’ll be to her nephew, Thomas Smith, the only relative of Delia who has been a fan of the club for years (and who is currently a director himself). He will become majority shareholder, and so we’re slowly building up the relationship with him.”

The three lessons from Norwich City? Legitimacy, Longevity and Relationship Building

The Trust hasn’t yet formally approached getting something in writing to govern the relationship between it and the club, but CST are happy that the new Managing Director is much more aware of the EFL’s feelings on this (the structured relationship requirements brought in last season), and in due course it’s hoped he’ll be happy to.

Steve Stone’s background in the pub trade is also an important aspect (he came from the Spirit Pub Company, as well as working for Gala Bingo): The pub trade has the Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA]), and so he understands supporters to be people to have serious discussions with, and the positive benefit engaged stakeholders like supporters bring. In fact, the Trust will soon be refloating their application for Carrow Road to be listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV), which even though it was supported by Delia Smith and Michael Wynne Jones, was rejected by last but one CEO, David McNally.

As Mike puts it “He definitely sees the benefit in written arrangements, and we are definitely another step up the ladder of formalising the relationship between the trust and the management of the club.”

Lessons from Norwich City

Legitimacy – both sides recognising the value of a representative supporters’ organisation

Longevity – investing time and effort in a long-term relationship between the club and its supporters and representatives. 

Relationships – recognising that whilst formality is vital to underpin relationships, none of it works without the building and maintenance of good relationships, and, of course, trust

Arsenal & West Ham: Do the fans always know first?

NB: This article was edited on 06/09/2017

Or perhaps it should say, ‘Do the fans always know best?’

I’ve been prompted to write this article by two interesting stories and posts that I’ve seen recently. The first, about the protests being organised by West Ham supporters; and the second, a story from the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST), which had surveyed its 1,000 members about the future of Arsene Wenger, and presented their unsurprising findings with a tweet saying, ‘The fans always know first’ (below).

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Although I’ve slightly change the question being posed to: ‘Do the fans always know best?’, what fans think, and whether they’re right is one thing, but how as a club do you even find out, who do we ask, even, how do we ask? It’s not easy.

One of the biggest issues in finding out is who you speak to, as well as what methods you use. This is especially true in an age where a twitter handle or facebook group can literally be taken as a ‘supporters’ group’. and in some cases, is.

First of all, they aren’t homogeneous. I think of all the regions and countries I’ve worked in, and as you’d expect, there’s always a diversity of views. As a group, they’re are often very different as actual people, and have a variety of opinions on any given issue.

They diverge on quite a lot of views about the club. On playing matters alone, especially around the often contentious issue of managers and players, this can vary wildly. Indeed, results don’t always matter per-se: it can often be a matter of ‘taste’, if you like. Some might prefer a manager who doesn’t play the long ball; another might take a view that a striker who puts more work in is preferable to one who goal-hangs, even if they do score regularly. Some might even believe in the idea that their club should – or shouldn’t – play a particular style of football. Many might not care at all. On player signings, the diversity can be mind-boggling.

What is true however is that when organised groups of supporters talk about an issue, their particular take on it will be amplified. But the provenance of it might even vary: It may well be the view of their members, it could be the board/committee legitimately taking a position on an issue – sometimes it might have involved surveying a section of supporters as a broader group. However, what is undoubtedly difficult for many who work in the game is the idea that any group can – or even should – speak for most or all fans.

Groups can be genuinely difficult to deal with particularly, partly because of the actual numbers involved and the amplification they provide to an issue, but also because the process of actually trying to work out how much time you should dedicate to each one – especially those emanating from social media – can be genuinely difficult to manage.

It’s always worth asking some basic questions before you pay attention to a group, respond, or don’t. Here are some basic questions that are always I’d always recommend asking:

  1. Is the issue in question one that seems to be concerning the wider fanbase? In the right circumstances, where your SLO, supporter services department, or other supporter-facing employees are spending time with supporters on the ground, you should quite easily be able to find out. My work with Liverpool Supporters Group Spirit of Shankly on the collapse in relations between club and fans in early 2016, exposed a big problem at Liverpool in this regard.
  2. Do you know the group(s) concerned? Have you met with them? What’s in their DNA – i.e.: Why were they formed? And yes, how many people do they represent? Are they ‘just’ a social media channel or group? What other groups are there speaking for fans? The numbers question in particular can be used, wrongly, as a way of rejecting the views of a group out of hand: Some years ago, I was contacted by an official at a club who was clearly intent on using the membership numbers of a supporters trust as a reason not to engage with it. That isn’t the right attitude, and just breeds resentment. It looks petty, and defensive. The best people in senior positions in football that I know, have a pretty open-door policy in general, and this helps.
  3. Have you thought that you might need to look at how (your method) – not how often – you’re communicating with the fanbase, or with that specific group? At bigger clubs in the Championship and Premier League, there will always I suspect be a temptation to ‘broadcast’, whether through big meetings which are more like lectures or presentations, or using ‘traditional’ media tools, as though the internet was never invented. ‘Set-pieces’ don’t reset the debate in the way they used to, because that debate is going on 24/7, and it’s naive to think they will. Government and politics are belatedly catching up to this being a largely failed model, but I find that football clubs are still making that mistake.

I do have some sympathy though. It’s not always easy to recognise when supporters are flagging up a legitimate issue, who you should actually focus on speaking to, or whether there’s a group – as there is sometimes – that you should avoid spending too much time on. However, it’s worth giving it some proper thought, and getting it right.

As a consultant with over 14 years experience of working with supporters all over the UK and Europe, I understand their priorities and frustrations, how they think and what they want. I also know the challenges clubs face in football today, and I build bridges between the two, helping to forge understanding and agreement, while advising clubs on how best to communicate with their biggest stakeholder.

If you want to talk more about these issues, you can contact me via email: info@kevinrye.org or read more on my website: kevinrye.org

FSF Survey shows that US style ‘Fan Engagement’ isn’t the answer

Today’s FSF fan survey results show that football clubs are still not grasping the need for genuine, properly structured dialogue between fans and their clubs.

Clubs have undoubtedly got better at recognising the needs of supporters when it comes to matchday, but they have looked too much to the United States and ‘fan engagement’, which too often focuses on the fan as a type of ‘customer’. Instead, they need to be recognised as something more than that: as a stakeholder – a special form of association, which requires a different approach to the relationship.

This isn’t just about language: Relationships need to be managed differently. Clubs need to established proper ‘structured dialogue’ between supporters and clubs, one which allows both sides to air their views honestly and openly, and to seek to use those relationships to improve the way the club communicates over issues such as ownership, finance and the general treatment of fans.

Football has made some tentative and welcome steps towards better, more grown up relationships, but they have only made a start.

Kevin Rye is a consultant with over 14 years experience of working with supporters all over the UK and Europe, I understand their priorities and frustrations, how they think and what they want. I also know the challenges clubs face in football today, and I build bridges between the two, helping to forge understanding and agreement, while advising clubs on how best to communicate with their biggest stakeholder.

‘Sanitising’ English football: who asked the fans?

‘Sanitising’ is an word often used to describe, in particular, Premier League football and the commercialisation that we’ve seen since its creation in 1992. A recent retweet from the Non League Paper featuring an interview with a Liverpool fan on this subject has prompted me to put down my thoughts on it. The actual tweet is below (though pedantically speaking, is ‘sanitation’ the right word?!):

For me the point of the complaints simply that they want it all to return to some kind of updated version of the 1970s or 1980s. I went to football then, and whilst it wasn’t half as dangerous as some people make out, and had its attractions, stadiums were dangerous and badly maintained for a start, and we were herded into ‘pens’ like animals at times (the fact that this was allowed to happen helps make the same point I’m about to make about supporters views on ‘sanitising’ of the game).

The point is that supporters, who get told by many people that they are the ‘lifeblood’, and various other versions of that phrase, don’t see that being demonstrated in practice. They see corporate hospitality taking precedence, matches being shifted, policing decisions being executed without any proper discussion, ownership chopping and changing over their heads, poor decisions being made, and because they are important, and told they are, want to know why. They don’t – most of them – necessarily want the entire thing stopped, or even most of it. They’re not a bunch of Luddites. Often, they simply want some things to be done to balance that out. A bit of give-and-take.

Supporters are the lifeblood, but in English football specifically, the actions of those running clubs tend to send the opposite message. Yes, ‘fan engagement’ initiatives have helped to improve some things. Some of the ‘supporter-as-customer’ initiatives by the EFL like ‘Enjoy the Match’ have been really important in simply ensuring that supporters are treated like they’re wanted, valued as a matchgoing fan, spending their hard-earned money.

But to deal with the real problem, and to ensure that supporters feel valued is to ensure that they are valued. It shouldn’t be relationship marketing. They don’t want loyalty points, club shop discounts, or social media engagement, however nice an addition all that is from a supporter-as-customer experience point of view. The key is dialogue, like I’ve said before on these pages. Vital to managing change in football is not to implement it and be damned. Nor to survey fans to find out that they don’t like what you’ve done after all. It’s to use your supporters to help to shape what you’re doing.

The key is for those at the top of the club to sit down with their supporters, their representatives, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and a desire to talk, to listen, and to engage in dialogue. And that means that sometimes, what you do might have to change.

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

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.

Confused about structured dialogue? Help is at hand…

‘Structured Dialogue’ is, like ‘Fan Engagement’, ‘Structured Relationships’ and ‘Structured Engagement’, a term that’s entered the football vocabulary in the last few years at something of a rapid pace.

All of sudden, you hear talk of ‘memorandums of understanding’ between supporters’ trusts, groups and clubs; fans parliaments; ‘engagement strategies’ and more. But what does this all mean?

It’s a good question, and as usual in a developing field like that of structured dialogue, and more broadly supporter communications, there are plenty of opinions.

Fans aren’t all the same, and each club is different, so what I can’t offer you off-the-shelf solutions. What I can offer you is an expert analysis – a ‘health-check’ of your current structures and practice, and help to find the right way for you to work with your supporters and their representatives.

As a consultant with over 14 years of experience of working with supporters all over the UK and Europe, I understand them, what they think and what they want. I also know the challenges clubs face, and I build bridges between the two, help to forge understanding and agreement, and advise clubs on how to communicate with their biggest stakeholder.

If you’re interested in finding out more about structured dialogue, managing relationships with your supporters,  and communicating better with them, you can contact me. You can even sign up for a free phonecall from me via the Contact Me page of my website.

 

The Premier League and ‘Dialogue’: An urgent change of approach is needed

It used to be that you couldn’t get the authorities to sit down with the supporters or their representatives to discuss anything, or if they did, it might involve them coming to the annual conference of Supporters Direct or The FSF (now combined into the ‘supporters summit’). Sometimes it meant a speech from a less high-ranking official, with very little actual interaction with those present.

Fortunately, that changed after years of pressure, lobbying and campaigning from Supporters Direct (SD). Latterly both themselves and its sister organisation, The FSF, have begun meeting with The Premier League to discuss issues of concern. In the last few days however it’s become clear that we have a new problem in English football, and it’s this word ‘dialogue’, sometimes referred to as ‘structured dialogue’, that’s at the root of it.

The problem has emerged because The Premier League, despite very recently having a ‘structured dialogue’ meeting with a group comprised of Supporters Direct, The FSF, supporters’ trusts and other supporters’ organisations, neglected to mention a little detail: that 11:30 am kick-offs are being considered as part of their new TV deal.

Setting aside the reasons for this (maximising exposure in an ever-saturated market, and maximising revenue, whilst having to avoid the cherished Saturday 3:00pm kick-off slot), the problem here appears to be that the word ‘dialogue’ might not be being understood by The Premier League (Incidentally, it means that a two-way conversation is had between those involved, with the possibility of changes in position on either part. It’s what any good, healthy relationship should exhibit.)

In a study I undertook a few months ago for my Diploma in Public Relations examining why English football struggles with the concept of dialogue and two-way communications, one thing was very clear: the game in England struggles with what it actually means, and also with the impact it might have. It invariably means that they might have to act differently, or do something differently. Incidentally, it also means that supporters and their representatives might have to as well, but I genuinely think that’s a far smaller problem than the one I’m talking about here.

To a large extent it’s about the way that English football clubs are regarded. Historically – at least in the majority of the 20th Century and beyond – they have been private concerns, and the property of whoever owns them. This means that the owners don’t have to be subject to questioning or have to justify their actions. Naturally that has extended into the actions and culture at the heart of leagues themselves, given that they reflect the clubs themselves, who effectively own the competitions.

What’s happening now I believe is that this dynamic is clashing with an almost completely contradictory view of football, as propagated by the emergence of supporters’ trusts and Supporters Direct itself. The fact is that supporters themselves now expect a different attitude from those running the game, because they view football clubs as being morally theirs to a large extent, and at the very least, should be prepared to listen, if not act on their concerns.

This dynamic – the clash between two different cultures and sets of expectations – exists. I’ve seen it and dealt with it repeatedly – not least most recently with my report for Spirit of Shankly on the way Liverpool FC operated in this area, which ultimately led to a collapse in relationships between fans and club, and in the end, a mass walkout of fans. At some point this clash will have to be resolved in general, but more specifically, The Premier League, in this context, is going to have to start being seen to take the concept of ‘structured dialogue’ far more seriously, or it’s just storing up problems for itself.

 

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