Northampton Town and the art of managing a crisis in football

Reading Northampton Town Chairman David Cardoza’s rather empty and unconvincing statement on their latest financial trouble this morning (a winding up petition from HMRC) set my mind racing about the ‘art’ (I use the term loosely) of crisis communications in football.

Crisis? What crisis?

Cardoza’s current predicament is but one of at least three large predicaments; the first being that the council, owed some £10.5m, are equally determined to get their money back, and that the mysterious ‘consortium’ that were according to Cardoza charging full throttle to save the day pulled out on Monday.

Having spent over 11 years heading up PR at fan ownership specialists and football reformers, Supporters Direct, I regularly saw the spin operations of clubs going at full tilt to deal with one issue or another – often caused by their own hand.

I also advised a number of fan-owned clubs in the League about on-and-off pitch crises myself, so I thought I’d write something about how far too many clubs still execute their crisis management.

So here’s the 1-4 of how to write the standard football club rebuttal: an easy to use template for the starter football communications executive who is thrown into dealing with a big problem and needs a helping hand.

Disclaimer for the litigiously minded: Whether or not Cardoza convinces the fans of Northampton Town is another thing entirely, and whether he’s actually telling all of the truth is not really for me to deal with, of course. I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just using his statement as a hook to hang a hat on.

1. The all important headline
This is where you set minds at ease, and tell everyone that despite the issue at hand – in this case a winding up petition for non-payment – there’s really ‘nothing to see here’. You hope that this will stop anyone paying any further attention, but in case they do;

2. ‘Form is temporary’
Reassure everyone that even if there is a problem, which there isn’t, that it’s ‘temporary’, a ‘glitch’. If you’re talking about money, use the term ‘investment’ as much as possible; it’s a warm, fuzzy thing is the term ‘investment’. It conjures up visions of new signings that will placate the horny handed sons of toil, or ‘supporters’ as we know them;

3. We’re doing everything we can: this is not a crisis. There’s nothing to see here.
Did we mention that this isn’t a crisis? There really is nothing to see here. Besides, we’re close to reaching an agreement on ‘x, y or z’. We are, and we’ll let you know more soon. Promise;

4. Restate the headline
‘We’re sincerely moving to a brighter future/things are moving forward/are really exciting for all of us’. Things are on the up. They are. It’s never a better time to be here. Usually you get ‘come on you xxxxx’ or ‘let’s make sure we back xxxxx and the lads on Saturday/Sunday/in the FA Cup’. Disappointingly David Cardoza misses a golden opportunity here – an open goal missed some might say.

So that’s the crisis statement 101. Try it yourself.

My guide to PR crisis management

Whilst it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d just venture to offer a little bit of advice on crisis mangement in PR.

There may well be people better placed than me to advise on managing a crisis, but I’ve done a few, including one-or-two recently, and I think I’ve got some good advice to give.

This isn’t a step-by-step guide, as in my experience you have to do this in the order that it feels right to you to do; you may only have a few moments to execute it, in which case why would you be frantically scribbling out your strategy when you should be shutting down and/or controlling your channels.

1. Control contact and take charge of your channels
The first step has to be to channel your communications through just a few people & outlets; that may be the Managing Director/Chief Executive. In football or sport it may also be the Manager and, for example, the club captain or a senior player. That also counts for Twitter, Facebook and your other social media outlets. If you have to operate a ‘no comment’ policy for a short while, then do it. Social media doesn’t have to be engaging all the time. And when you’re in full swing, you can still operate your normal business, just ensure that whoever has to know, knows what they can and can’t say. Control shouldn’t be a dirty word. Where social media is concerned, it is an environment which, quite probably for some, is a welcome chance to speak frankly, and so ‘redress’ the balance tipped in favour of the control freakery of the mythical age of ‘spin doctory’ exemplified by Alistair Campbell (more about him another time; but I’m more of an admirer than a chastiser and I will explain then), but they need to listen to professionals executing a strategy that is meant to work for the whole organisation. They can speak candidly another time.

2. Establish your strategy
Try to work out what you’re trying to say, why, how and using what tools. Don’t just strategise in your head, or scribble down a few lines; write a strategy, but remember; it’s what you use as your touchstone. A good crisis manager learns to do deliver a lot of this instinctively, and in time you will, but you should always have this up your sleeve, ready to refer to it. If you need a rough plan, try this one I use a lot.

3. Create timelines
There are useful tools out there around project planning. One such is a Gannt Chart, which is a tool used by a lot of project planners, and which helps you to break each task into its composite tasks, and by date and person responsible. Use it or something like it, again, to provide that touchstone. Try this one I picked up on a training course some time back.

4. Remain disciplined but be flexible
Don’t suddenly get complacent because you feel like you’re in control, and don’t give up just because you feel like you’re failing. There are ebbs-and-flows in any story, in any crisis, and you need to learn to recognise them. And don’t suddenly decide to take your hands off the steering wheel just because you think you’re cruising. All that aside, one of the best lessons I’ve learned over time is not to be rigid in your delivery; recognise when you can perhaps be a bit flexible – maybe, tactically, you can be a bit more open. One of the ways I’ve done it in the past is to use Twitter as a way of targeting an influencer, and on one occassion, I actually ended up on the phone to them, explaining the rather misunderstood position that we were taking. It didn’t get him to agree with my position, but he did understand it, and tweeted, to a lot of other people, also a tag which meant that more people would or could read it.

5. Talk regularly and be a human being
When you’re trying to deliver your strategy, you need to remain in contact with your spokespeople, or whoever it is that is involved in delivering it. Whether you’re sat behind the scenes, or upfront in the heat of battle, human contact is the vital component above all. Don’t just do the heavy lifting at the start and then disappear, or sit emailing your contact; at least speak to them by phone, meet them if possible. Discuss what they’ve had to do that day to, which journalists, bloggers, tweeters, whoever, have been difficult, positive, what has been stressful or difficult. In the end, each of the actors in any crisis strategy – be they the people delivering it, those defending your organisation, or the ones asking the difficult questions – are human beings, and you need to understand that. If you just act like a machine or worse still, are cold and unthinking, that damages peoples’ confidence. PR is about reputation but it’s also about relationships.

6. Monitor the external environment
Keep an eye on what’s going on out there; set up Google News Alerts, browse Twitter, look at what people are saying on Facebook. But don’t get obsessed. This is another way people get lost in any form of PR or media management, but especially in crises. A lot of this kind of work can get knocked out of its stride by obsessing about what a few people are talking about, so don’t_get_obsessed. Ok?

7. Manage it with your own flair 
What works for me or others isn’t guaranteed to work for you, so find your own groove; work out what’s comfortable for you, but, in the spirit of this post, be prepared to feel uncomfortable too; that’s normal and it’s how you’ll learn.

Thanks for reading. I’m not a repository for all knowledge about this subject by any means, so if you feel you’d like to disagree, or discuss or debate, please do – here or on Twitter. It’s partly how I learned. That and doing it.

Socialising your business the Man City way, not the Tesco way

Socialising your business is something that came up following an enquiry from a student about football clubs and how they communicate using social media. Would social media improve or has it improved the way that they relate to fans (and I would add, community and other stakeholders such as local business, schools, universities and other institutions)?

I’ve done a little bit of reading about it, and about the only other people talking about the concept (on the web at least) appears to be Quadriga Consulting (never heard of them til today). They have some interesting resources on this via their website, but it’s all a bit too market-y for me, and so I wanted to just muse a bit about what the effect of socialising your business, besides the potential to shift more units, can be.

The first thing I would say is that ‘socialising your business’ should not be just some mad dash to chat on twitter, or create a vibrant facebook page where everyone gets terribly excited about your new brand of lager. Of course, if you sell lager – or books; I like books – then that’s a perfectly decent way to try to sell more. But I don’t call it ‘socialising’; I call that sales. Very good sales.

Behind it all should be a drive to try to create ‘authenticity’ in the company or organisation; that wooly concept in PR that seems to be de-rigeur at the moment. And football is a perfect place see that kind of thing in action. Or not.

Though a very different type of football club to the ones I normally work with, Manchester City has undergone a transformation in the way it operates. And it’s been a perfect laboratory for the idea of socialising the business, given what most fans had to endure under Peter Swales, Franny Lee and others.

It’s something I read about in Dave Conn’s latest tome (one of the finest journalists that we’ve produced in many, many years in this country). The new, oil rich owners from Abu Dhabi came in, spent a whole wadge of cash on signing Robinhio, and then dashed the cynics’ hopes by actually looking at the business and trying to work out what it should do; and how it should relate to its customer base and stakeholders.

And before you say it, I’m just employing short-hand; part of the point is that they had to better consider the fans as guardians of the authenticity of any football club, not just customers. Anyway, they duly did, and whoever it was, at the front-end CEO Gary Cook clearly acted like he understood something about the notion of ‘socialising the business’ because they didn’t just start employing a load of fancy social media tools and doing behind-the-scenes filming etc with a hope that it would divert the attention of people from a load of things they didn’t like.

They introduced a lot of interactivity and conversation and built online relationships with the supporters, as well as developing relationships with their other stakeholders, alongside the fan-zones, alongside bringing the ticket-office into the warm, and other substantial, tangible, authentic improvements. They seemed to actually understand that what they were going into required not just a load of cash thrown at new signings (though that plenty of that was and is in evidence), but actually in building the business into something that meant that when you told the story, people believed you.

Beyond the idea of PR as ‘spin’ and towards the idea that you have a reputation, which must be carefully managed, but which crucially, must be real; not just a brand with some values attached to it. And fans will understand this better than almost anyone; we’ve all seen the messiah on a few occassions, I’ll have you know.

Setting aside my obvious disagreement with the business model, the sort of thing that Man City has done is in my opinion the route not just for football clubs, but for companies that got stodgy over a twenty-odd year period. Something which banks have almost perfectly exemplified, but also companies like Tesco who got obsessed with big being best, and forgot that ‘Retail is detail’; that their customer actually matters more than how much data you can get from their clubcard use. It takes you back to the whole idea of what you’re there to do, and then gives you the opportunity for a bit of rebirth, a bit of a new start.

To do that at a football club is a bit different to a bank or a supermarket though; captive market and all that (a major part of the reason that I believe football clubs aren’t quicker off the mark), and though I think that most people don’t want to talk to you on twitter about how cheap your beans are, socialising your business is at heart about being authentic. It’s about opening you up; if you don’t, there’s plenty of people who’ll find out anyway, and the results might not be to your liking.

The people who have most influenced me

If we think hard, I’m sure most of us would be able to think of people who have influenced us.

Likewise for me. As someone who came into the field only in my late 20’s, I have been fortunate to have encountered some very skilled communicators who have taught me a lot, and who I remain very grateful to.

If they cared to read my words, it might make them blush a little, but I’m doing this as a sort of stock-take for my own purposes. So if you don’t like it, call it a complement.
I’ve not ranked them in any order; just as they come to me. I might add more in the future.
1. Kris Stewart: former Chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, first Chair and CEO of AFC Wimbledon
Kris gave me my ‘big break’. As a frustrated fan of Wimbledon in 2001, peering at the commencement of the now second slowest car-crash in football history (trumped of late by Portsmouth) via the Weird and Wonderful World Guestbook, I can still remember his response to my frustrations: ‘Brighton Womble, email me.’ I did, and thus I ended up on a rollercoaster ride with other members of WISA, as we battled to prevent our club’s league place being sold to the new town of Milton Keynes. 
We didn’t succeed, but what we built was twice as magnificent as what went before. As the man at the helm, Kris’s reading of the situation at almost any given turn was expert, and his eye for detail in how he said what he said might have seemed like pedantry late at night when we were trying to agree his latest Yellow and Blue column, but it was critical; he knew that he had to get it right, and get it right he did. 
He’s known for his line at the AGM of WISA after nearly a year’s campaigning, when we were exhausted and emotional having been beaten by an ‘Independent Commission’. “I just want to watch football” he said. Right line, right time, every time.
What I love is that I still remain a friend, and that he’s just an ordinary fan again like the rest of us.
2. Phil French: former CEO of Supporters Direct
Phil gave Supporters Direct a kick up the backside at a time when we needed it. 
Having come from The Premier League, and with a political background, he was a smart, well seasoned operator. In some respects he was similar to Kris in that he knew that crafting the message was critical, as was maintaining relationships. Most of all for me, he showed a trust in people’s judgement – my judgement – that is critical for any PR or communications professional only really just starting out. To be able to do that under someone of Phil’s calibre was very fortunate.
Some might baulk at the idea of control, but I’ve learned from Phil, as I did from Kris, that if you get the message right, you give yourself a chance. 
He went on to be a Special Advisor to Andy Burnham as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, (Andy was also Chair of Supporters Direct for a time) and is now Director of Public Policy at the ECB.
3. Paul Simpson: former Head of Press and Publicity at Radio One, and now consultant and PR lecturer, and lover of Fine Fare.
Paul is someone who believes things should be done differently. He believes that PR should be done with integrity, that PR’s should in essence have an ethical code, and has done most of all to instil in me a view that ‘spinning’ is not the way to do it; that instead honesty is the best policy. He’s also angry with the World and how it works, and so, like Kris, he tries to change it bit-by-bit. I like that.
He doesn’t believe that PR is about telling everyone everything, but that realising that PR – even more so given the openness that social media has brought – is a window into the world you inhabit as a company or organisation, not as a tool to get people to look the other way when you screw up. In fact, at it’s best you should use PR as a way of ensuring you are ethical in what you do. It needs to reflect on everything you do, and always make you think; could I justify this in public if I had to?
Though also a friend, he also taught me on a media relations short-course at the University of West London. The skills I learned there have continued to serve me, and have been passed onto countless supporters’ trusts, football clubs and individuals that I have advised over the years. He also taught me to do it with style. I try. 
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