A PR own goal
4 min read

A PR own goal

A case study on what happens when you ignore values.
A PR own goal

How wrong can PR agencies get it? Look no further than the recent football debacle in Europe.

It's a lesson in not understanding true fans, and in being utterly tone deaf to the sentiments and values of your most important asset.

Last month, a group of European football clubs announced that they have decided to set up their own league - The Super League.

These clubs felt they could make more money by upending a 120+ year football system, creating a league with no promotion, no relegation - but guaranteed regular matches between the so-called super-clubs.

The public response was stunning.

In England, everyone was having their say: the royal family, the prime minister, national media, and television pundits came together in a way never perhaps seen since war time.

They decried this was against the values of football, the values of fairness, competition and tradition. It was even described as a 'criminal act' on live television.

Needless to say, the response was overwhelmingly negative.

PR disaster

The Super League clubs hired PR firm InHouse, an agency with high-level political connections and experience with government.

They created a nice looking brand, a fancy website, and then, one Sunday afternoon, sent out a press release announcing the plans.

And then the wheels fell off.

This ferocious reaction is what happens when values clash.

As the story unfolded, I thought about how it must've been for the PR person at InHouse.

Imagine doing all this work with the biggest football clubs on the planet, sending out your press release, only to get a reaction like you declared war on a continent.

The bottom line

The owners of the 12 clubs that signed up to The Super League, including the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, saw the dollar signs.

If you analyse the press release, you quickly see where their priorities lay.

We have the who: the clubs (not the fans).

We have the what: forming a Super League.

Then we have the why: money.

Oh dear... Most of the press release focused on the money.

It looks like negative blowback was anticipated by the PR firm. There was lip-service paid to how this would help everyone 'in the football pyramid'. How the billions these clubs would gain would also trickle down and benefit everyone.

But that wasn't convincing anyone.

It was like Shell suddenly appearing in your back garden to drill for oil, telling you it's in all our best interests and that it's good for your lawn.

Culture clash

Many of the owners are American, and clearly The Super League was an attempt to fit an American sports model on a different system.

In the US, sports teams are 'franchises'. It's not unusual to see clubs move from one city to the next, competing in closed leagues that do not have promotion nor relegation.

Fans are more or less used to seeing the same teams fight it out over and over again.

The culture, history and context of football is different in Europe. Templating doesn't work when it comes to cultures and values.

In England, like elsewhere around the world except the US, clubs generally have roots deep in class culture. Liverpool FC, for instance, stems back to dockyard workers who used to play team sports in Stanley Park in 1870.

And despite being super rich clubs today, those working class values still hold. A central value being a sense of 'fairness' and 'getting what you work for'.

The Super League's values were in direct contrast to this.

The new Amazon Prime documentary about former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson spends much of the time focusing on the clubs and players working class roots, cultures and even religions.

With all their money and power, I'm sure the clubs could have found a way to deliver the news in a way that would have been received a little less angrily. But they misread the room.

Most of the Super League clubs quickly changed tack within a couple of days, withdrawing their letters of intent and apologising to fans.

The owners of Manchester United wrote an open letter apologizing for failing “to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions […] Manchester United has a rich heritage and we recognise our responsibility to live up to its great traditions and values.”

They're starting to understand, but probably too late. The trust was hardly there in the first place.

The most powerful audience one can have are fans. These are people who are willing to support you through thick and thin - and pay for that experience.

They can accept any number of missteps, but if you go against their values you won't stand a chance.

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