Communication Matters: Lee Power, Fanzai and PR
Crap app Fanzai and another media ban are just part of a bigger problem, it’s time for Lee Power and his team to start talking, and listening, to Town fans, says Alex Cooke
Fanzai is rubbish and the new media ban is ridiculous. But even these two blinkered, probably damaging, decisions are just symptoms of a deeper problem at Swindon. It is a problem which could hurt Town’s ability to find sponsors, investors and even to keep its dwindling fanbase happy.
Lee Power clearly doesn’t see a value in public relations. After all, PR doesn’t create profit and it doesn’t directly sell any tickets. In fact it costs money and time. However, bad PR can also be very expensive. It isn’t just about a few hysterical supporters on Facebook either, a worst-case scenario also effects people who could effectively shut the club, such as Swindon borough council, the FA or FL.
Just look at the club’s falling gates and reduced season ticket sales. Why is that happening so soon after the team’s most successful season on the pitch for a decade? It is happening because of PR. Because the club aren’t putting their side of the story, they aren’t inspiring confidence, they aren’t doing any public relations. And so in the minds of supports and sponsors the club falls back on its reputation. And Swindon Town do not have a very good one of those.
‘Reputation’ appears regularly in PR as the ideas that people have about an organisation, developed over time and coloured through their experience. Its value is quite simple and proven: companies who have a good reputation are liked. They communicate well and make people feel valued and listened to. And so they find it easier to attract and retain customers, investors and staff. Having a good reputation makes people more sympathetic to you when things go wrong too. It makes them more likely to stick with you when times are bad, or at least to see your side. It makes them more likely to buy tickets, sponsor you or want a job with you.
The problem is that Swindon Town don’t have a great reputation, now or thoughout their recent history. Bitter experience of previous deception and administration has hurt many fans, local businesses, other football clubs, the Football League and even the local council. And this history makes everyone suspicious, especially when previous bouts of silence from the County Ground, combined with player sales has meant impending storm clouds.
Years of court cases and unpaid or paid-at-the-last-minute bills, mean that now even the most minor story about a broken PA system or police cost escalate the minds of supporters within hours. Many fans, and the club, seem to blame those who report it, but really the job is of the club to counter it. Instead they stay silent when a holding statement would often take much of the wind out of the issue. In fact, some issues could even be turned to their advantage.
This idea of controlling stories by controlling the media’s access belongs to a pre-internet age, and recent events highlight it. The new restrictions on player interviews and pre-match press conference, seems to result from the stories about Mark Cooper leaving for Sheffield Wednesday. And yet at least half of the reporting came, via the internet, from Sheffield.
These days stories no longer start and stop with a local paper. They come from Twitter, blogs, forums and the like. Anyone and everyone can question any organisation or start a story. Everyone with a phone is a now communicator, and clubs or businesses are just part of the same network.
In this world, discussions about a company or club can take place online without them even knowing about it. They can’t correct it or deny it and, regardless of the truth, it will remain online for years. For some theorists, the national significance of football means that any attempt by a club to control information or to ‘spin’ it after release is said to even more limited or damaging than other types of organisation.
The problem is this age is authority and credibility. And Swindon Town don’t always have that much of either. From the Bob Holt years and Jed McCrory era, there remains a been a degree of suspicion about anything they do say, e.g. the ‘Friday Statements’. As a result, rumour is believed by some as much as the club’s honest answers.
While Twitter rumours have little credibility, the media can still give them that credibility or reach to make it beyond mere rumour. Of late the reporting from the ‘banned’ sites has largely been benign, but that could easily change without the carrot of access. Without a response from the club who there to put a ‘positive’ side.
Also in the internet-age transparency, or the expectation of transparency, is a growing problem. Clearly Power wants to run the club as a private business, and that is his choice. However, we now live in a society in which transparency is expected at all levels, be it from food labelling to Freedom of Information requests for local councils. Big companies have embraced this. They have the resources to put out ads and get CEOs profiled in The Timesbut at Swindon, many of the names involved with the club remain unknown. In fact, even trying to find an email address just to complain about the lack of hand towels in the toilets isn’t easy.
But fans are more than mere customers. Our very identities are often tied into that of our club. Our emotional, and often financial investment, frequently means we want to know more, and we expect to know more. And yet the little we know about how Swindon is run has all too frequently been discovered via fans digging at Companies House or spotting agents and ‘faces’ at games. Again the club’s history comes into play with its past of secretive boards and unknown ‘advisers’. In this environment, suspicion is natural.
Even any good news is lost in this lack of engagement with fans. After all the club have done well is to work with TrustSTFC, the Supporters Club and banner-king Jay Collett. They have harnessing their energy and enthusiasm to actually generate ideas and improve things together. This is exactly the kind of thing that advocates of good PR push – the free exchange of ideas between clubs and fans. It has led to some real progress too – such as in schools initiative and cheaper tickets for teenagers – but they don’t seem to have been pushed enough from the club’s side.
Despite these bright spots, the average fan still has very little chance to engage with the club, apart from the time-limited and media-controlled bi-annual local radio phone-in. The club doesn’t encourage anyone to ask questions of them, to contact them via email or Twitter. When someone does get an answer, it is always via the same kind-hearted individuals in the shop or ticket office.
None of which is to criticise the media department at Swindon – he clearly works very hard – but he doesn’t have the time, resources or seniority to do what is required. But upping quality of communication from the club would cost Power, and demand more time from him too. Even a social media account alone places a huge demand on an individual’s time, let alone generating all of the new material for Fanzai.
Solutions aren’t easy to find, especially ones which fit the low-cost model Power pursues. Although as some PR writers would undoubtedly identify the current problems as a crisis, something has to be done or much of the ‘good news’, and good work with the Trust and other clubs, will be lost.
First of all there has to be a plan. Call it a media strategy if you must, but it has to be created and approved and backed by the board. That means either getting someone in to advise, consult or just persuade Power to be less worried, less careful. Or just ask Sangita Shah for her thoughts? Perhaps the seemingly silent Steve Anderson could do an interview once in a while?
Also the media bans need to end, and access has to be given to all – including the Adver. If Power won’t pay for publicity – these guys will do much of it for him. They just need a little bit of material to work with.
Fanzai can be used, if the club want to, but good PR can’t be limited to one channel or another. Huge numbers of Town fans only see the club via the Adver, the Beeb or on a match-day. Fanzai – which is limited to those with Android and Apple devices – fails them even more than those of us who have tried to use it.
There is no need for cheap tricks, just a little customer service. Even if Power joined Twitter or Mark Cooper logged into Facebook they would be quickly seen through anyway. Ged McCrory’s use of Twitter showed the risks and the benefits of such an approach. At first, that level of direct access thrilled many but it turned very sour when the promises made by Ged didn’t happen.
The solution, like the problem, isn’t complicated. All of the PR theory and experimentation that underpins this stuff is just common sense too. The answer doesn’t require ad campaigns, costly campaigns or events, just a little bit of charming sponsors and talking to the fans.