How to mess things up – and how to say sorry

Published on Thursday, April 29th, 2021 by julian

Lighthouse Communications > News + Views > How to mess things up – and how to say sorry

Football fans around the world were startled and then angered recently when several of Europe’s leading clubs announced plans to form their own breakaway European Super League.

To say the plan went down like a tonne of bricks would be an understatement.

Driven by largely billionaire club owners, its blatant money-driven approach and the way it undermined traditional promotion and relegation arrangements, as well as the existing Champions League competition, led to an almost visceral reaction.

It normally takes a lot to upset every stakeholder group at once, but this proposal managed to do just that.

Fans, other clubs, players, managers, football associations and governments were almost universally opposed to the proposal, and immediately outlined a range of countermeasures and sanctions. British PM Boris Johnston even threatened to ‘drop a legislative bomb’ on the plan if it progressed, such as withdrawing work permits for overseas players, potentially devastating the ability of English ESL clubs to attract the best talent.

The clubs involved in the ESL rapidly backed down, and a few days after the announcement, most of the big names had pulled out.

While the idea is dead in the water for now at least, it’s interesting to look at how it played out from a communications perspective, and the comms failures involved in both the launch and the mopping up afterwards.

For starters, while something like the ESL had been quietly mooted for several years, this was a comprehensive plan developed largely in secret and then announced out of the blue. Presumably for reasons of confidentiality and fear of leaks, the ESL proponents didn’t consult widely, or even narrowly for that matter, and failed to engage with key stakeholders like fans, governments and existing national and international football associations.

They therefore ended up announcing revolutionary plans as a nasty surprise for everyone, but then compounded their mistake by not selling it in.

For example, the same statement seems to have been put out by all the clubs, so London-based Arsenal ended up communicating with their fans via a generic press release with a quote from a Manchester United owner – and no-one from Arsenal saying anything.

There was no media blitz either. The owners were largely silent after the news dropped, and didn’t immediately get out in front of the media to push their scheme. Nor did they have any fan groups, former players or other recognised figures lined up to talk to journalists in support of the plans. There was no third-party support in a very complex stakeholder environment.

Finally, the plans, the timing and the rollout were all tone deaf. In a world ravaged by COVID and football in Europe played in largely empty stadiums, the unilateral money-grabbing feel of the proposal was completely inconsistent with the wider sense of societies battling the pandemic together – let alone with traditional long-term relationships between fans and clubs.

Clubs are made by fans, and in Europe football has deep cultural and historical roots that mean clubs are inseparable from their supporters, with the public seeing the owners as custodians of their clubs, not business owners in the traditional corporate sense.

The ESL proponents took their fans for granted, compounding this with a leaked planning document that insultingly referred to existing supporters as ‘legacy fans’. They made every mistake it’s possible to make, which makes this a likely case study for the PR textbooks in years to come.

As the proposal unwound and clubs began wavering, emboldened players and managers openly spoke out. Manchester City’s influential manager Pep Guardiola expressed his opposition to the plans of his own employers, while Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson put out a masterpiece of crystal-clear PR on behalf of his teammates that cleverly used the club motto against his own employers: “We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen. This is our collective position. Our commitment to this football club and its supporters is absolute and unconditional. You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The English clubs capitulated first, followed by most of the others in Italy, and then another in Spain, to leave the ESL in ruins less than three days after it was announced. It was now a case of damage control, and remarkably, most of the withdrawing clubs got that wrong too.

After all the controversy, only a few actually bothered to go out of their way to apologise to their supporters. Arsenal did one of the better jobs, with the presumably stunned PR team valiantly doing their best to walk it back: “The response from supporters in recent days has given us time for further reflection and deep thought… As a result of listening to you and the wider football community over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League. We made a mistake, and we apologise for it… Our aim is always to make the right decisions for this great football club, to protect it for the future and to take us forward. We didn’t make the right decision here, which we fully accept. We have heard you.”

All of this is an outstanding example of what happens when global commercial interests clash with national cultures and cherished traditions. In this instance the results were not pretty, the communications and stakeholder engagement strategies were deeply flawed, the execution was even worse, and the reputational damage done will take a long time to be forgotten.


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