Posted by Mark Grainger 09 Jan 2015

The changing face of PR in football

They say that no publicity is bad publicity. It’s a cliché that’s been floating around the world of PR longer than anyone can remember but it’s patently untrue. Negative publicity and sentiment should never be confused with positive engagement.

It’s a lesson that Oldham Athletic would have been wise to heed, as their proposed move to sign convicted rapist and walking petition magnet, Ched Evans, has seen a barrage of publicity and ill will thrown at the North Western club over recent weeks.

Coming mere weeks after high profile patrons at Evans’ old club, Sheffield United, threatened to walk out should he be reinstated, Oldham really shouldn’t have been surprised that their talks with the player drew ire and endless media scrutiny.

Evans was convicted of rape two years ago and sentenced to five years in prison before being released on license in 2014. He is currently seeking appeal but the nature of his crime and the affect it has had on the victim, who has had to move several times and adopt a new identity, has seen his attempts to return to football face huge opposition. A petition against a move to Oldham was signed by hundreds of thousands of people. 

After publically pushing ahead with their talks earlier in the week, Oldham announced last Thursday that they would not be pursuing the deal further. Crucially though, they did not cite the sentiments of their fans (aside from some poorly judged, abusive tweets sent to members of staff) and any subsequent impact on their reputation, but rather bitterly implied that the negative reaction of big name sponsors such as Nandos had made their desire to sign Evans financially untenable.

In short, what the club finally bowed to was financial pressure and not the opposition of the sports fans and Oldham supporters who had voiced their disgust. Nandos and other businesses clearly have a keener focus on their own reputation than Oldham do, with the chicken emporium already severing ties whilst others are still poised to withdraw their money in order to distance themselves from the club’s toxic pursuit of Evans. Interestingly though, Oldham’s stance ties in with a dangerous shift in the key relationships within football.

Football is an arena that provokes strong reactions amongst the public. It’s what the sport thrives on, garnering a level of unwavering support to an ideal and a yearly campaign. The relationship between club and supporters has traditionally been at the heart of everything; the emotional and financial investment of supporters is rewarded with the promise of success and unity, whilst the club reaps the benefit of ticket and merchandise sales to further their ambitions and standing with new acquisitions. If reputation ever came into consideration it was likely to be surrounding performance or the actions of individuals who could be easily dealt with. It’s a fairly simple system, and one that has allowed clubs to manage their reputations easily by making small changes to personnel and reaffirming their commitment.

Now though, that relationship is looking increasingly shaky. Many feel that the top-tier clubs are becoming too money focused, with fan relations taking a back-seat to the likes of stadium naming rights, headline grabbing player transfer fees and big money buyouts. This increased amount of corporate-style operating has led to clubs dealing with more traditional threats to their reputations, such as who they choose to associate and align themselves with, on a more regular basis.

The main problem that teams face should they choose to operate in this way, seemingly valuing money over honouring their commitments to the ticket buying public, is that their actions rarely reflect what is expected of them by a fan-base who are invested to the point of feeling a degree of ownership. Teams cannot exist without fans and, whilst fan loyalty is usually fairly reliable, they are one set of stakeholders that should never be undermined or pushed aside in favour of revenue. At the end of the day it’s the supporters, those who regularly shiver in the stands through the winter months and travel thousands of miles to see their team play, who ultimately decide a club’s reputation.

One example of a club playing with these boundaries would be Wonga’s sponsorship of Newcastle United. The controversial moneylender’s involvement and prominent shirt sponsorship quickly drew the ire of fans, with questions of suitability raised strongly and frequently on social media. Concessions made to fans, such as reinstating the stadium’s name of St James’ Park, appeased many but the reputation of the club and its owner, Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley, took a knock that it has subsequently struggled to shrug off, with fan animosity continuing to blight Ashley’s ownership.

In ignoring the public and their fans Oldham Athletic have set themselves a dangerous precedent and one has to wonder whether the club’s change of heart will be too little, too late, especially as their decision was informed by the threat of empty sponsor boards and not of empty seats. All businesses have key publics and stakeholder groups but football clubs are going to have to be extra careful in the future to ensure that they keep the right ones on side. Their reputations, and their futures, might just depend on it.