On the whole, football operates in the short term. At the Football Association there have been six chief executives in just over 10 years. The average length of a Premier League manager’s term in charge is around three-and-a-half years, whilst that drops to less than one-and-a-half in the Championship. Very few people in football can afford to apply long-term strategies, be it managers, coaches, directors or chief executives due in part to the ongoing demand for success.
Often, it follows suit that the PR strategies used to protect and nurture the image of the footballers themselves are as short-lived. The effect is a vicious circle of players and clubs averting PR crises, only for the words and actions of the said player fuelling the engine of further problems in the future. Wayne Rooney is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, footballer to suffer because of a conflict between what he says and what he does, and it is little wonder few people have a clear idea of what PR professionals do within football other than to offer crisis management.
When I work with footballers at Multitude Media, the PR strategy is tailored for each individual. Many footballers have aspirations to develop a positive public image but fear bad press given that often the most innocuous action can end up being spun negatively.
Often what we aim to do, in essence, is create a safe way for our clients in football to develop links with non-football related projects that they can involve themselves in in their spare time; to use their profile positively and to help them maintain their involvement, remaining engaged and proactive.
If we help a client forge links with a charitable or social project, we want to ensure that they will stay involved in the long term, and it’s vital that they are emotionally and creatively engaged with that said project. If we don’t just want sound bites or photo opportunities and instead want our clients to be able to have a lasting a meaningful impact on the projects that they support, they have to want to be involved.
Working with Micah Richards
Let me use Manchester City and England international Micah Richards as an example. City in the Community, the club’s way of supporting a range of projects and people in the region, is an example to other professional sports teams.
Similarly, the MCFC Charities of the Year scheme – which sees the club partner with a select number of charities for at least the course of a season – enables the club to offer support in the way of grants, player visits and media opportunities and is a vital support in the Greater Manchester area and beyond.
However, each player may only be called upon a few times a month for both of the above, and this leaves many more hours for players to involve themselves in other off-the-field projects should they wish. When we began working with Micah in late 2008, what was clear was that he had the desire to use his profile to benefit others, and our challenge was to try to match his interests and passions with suitable charities and campaigns.
As such, we formally introduced Micah and his elder sister Rhonda – who is heavily involved in Micah’s career – to If U Care Share, an initiative that encouraged young people to discuss their problems openly rather than bottling them up. The idea came about due to the suicide of Daniel O’Hare in 2005, and his parents, Shirley and Dean, and family decided to use their tragic experience for the good of others who may find themselves in a similar position to Daniel.
For Micah, If U Care Share struck a personal chord with him. In the same year as Daniel O’Hare’s death, a childhood friend who also played for the same team as Micah in Leeds committed suicide at the age of 18 whilst on remand in custody. Micah, his best friend Mark Harding and the rest of the Chapeltown community that they grew up in were shocked by the event, and from that day on the close-knit community promised to try to support people who found themselves in a similar position of helplessness.
When Micah read more about If U Care Share, he was determined to support the initiative in whatever ways Shirley and Dean felt necessary. To date that support has included Micah penning words of advice for young people that were used in an information pack taken to schools and community groups by If U Care Share, as well as signed merchandise for use in the annual charity golfing day. Micah can also frequently be spotted wearing the If U Care Share wristband in Manchester City matches in the hope of raising the profile of the project, and his is a long-standing presence that we hope will aid the expansion of the campaign around the UK.
If we had been thinking short-term, Micah’s involvement would have been limited to a one-off appearance or the provision of merchandise. Instead, Micah is only too happy to continue to support the work of If U Care Share, and it is beneficial to all concerned – for Micah as he is engaged by a project that he can directly relate to, and for If U Care Share who benefit from the added exposure they gain.
In essence, the key is for PR professionals working in sport not to look for a quick fix or an easy access to positive press. Such opportunities serve only to add to the criticism of players being out of touch with reality and living outside of the world of the everyman if it turns out there are inconsistencies in what they say and what they do.
Honest PR is the most effective
Instead, PR consultants such as ourselves at Multitude Media are tasked with laying out a medium to long-term plan for our clients that will educate them as to why they have to be aware of their responsibilities, the benefits of involvement in such charities and how to use and manage their profile.
The deeper effect is that the individual is then not just portrayed as being an improving or good person, but they become an improving or good person. Honest PR is far and away the most effective kind, and if you’re of the belief that the messages you transmit through a clear and long-term PR strategy should be honest and entirely reflective, professionals must work with their client in order to strengthen the foundations of their image rather than cover the cracks.
The large majority of footballers realise that they can use their profiles for the greater good, and for every individual who may show a naive disregard for anything other than their latest supercar or multi-million pound house, there are a vast number of footballers who want to help but perhaps don’t have the guidance to do so.
Players such as Craig Bellamy, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and Stephen Ireland have set-up charities and foundations of their own that do invaluable work. The Craig Bellamy Foundation opened a football academy in Sierra Leone earlier this year and offers five-year scholarships in the hope of offering unique opportunities to those who previously couldn’t access them, whilst the Stephen Ireland Foundation has raised thousands of pounds for St Francis House in Manchester amongst others – and these are just the immediate examples that spring to mind.
Such fine work as this flies in the face of the press that predated both of these projects and the stories of petulance and extravagance that have been directed at both Bellamy and Ireland. I’m sure if you spoke to all of the players above, instrumental in the ongoing development of their foundations is that they are passionate about and therefore engaged with what they are doing. The result is that there is a far greater chance of them continuing with their work and making a lasting impact on others, but also on themselves.
These extra-curricular projects aren’t, however, the responsibility of the clubs, and their management and success depends on the players and the people around them.
Opportunities for short-term, positive PR come cheaply to footballers and other sportspeople. The challenge for PR professionals working in the field is to implement a longer term strategy consistent with the client’s own interests and one that remains rigid amidst the forever changing landscape of media accountability.
Multitude Media offers PR and image consultancy to clients in sport and entertainment, ranging from Premier League footballers to global new media companies to up-and-coming comedians . With bases in Leeds, London and Manchester, the company continues to expand its client base and profile and has rapidly developed a reputation as one of the leading young PR companies in the UK.