Why PR matters in sport

This is an article by Niall Malone.
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The late Bill Nicholson is the greatest manager in the history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. He once professed, “The public can’t be kidded. They know what they want to see, what is good, what is bad and what is just average.”

It is a timeless and sobering message about an industry frequently hampered by egos and tarnished by greed. As a Spurs fan it is impossible not to absorb his wisdom.

Donna Cullen is Spurs’ executive director with responsibility for communications and like everyone else at White Hart Lane, keeps Bill Nicholson’s ethos central to all her operations.

She is acutely aware of the demands of the modern, media savvy Spurs fan, and with echoes of Bill’s famous quote tells me, “The supporters are the most important stakeholder at our club, they have our upmost respect.”

Cullen says that the Spurs board operate with the belief that they will never truly own the club, stating proudly, “Spurs will always belong to the fans.”

That notion shapes the refreshing manner in which Tottenham Hotspur chooses to communicate.

If the fans are the heartbeat of Tottenham Hotspur, then the communications team is the conscience.

As a result, Cullen knows that it is paramount for the supporters to receive the latest, and of course most accurate news, first. She upholds an unwavering focus on maintaining an ongoing dialogue and accountability at all times, because the way in which supporters view the ownership of football clubs has come full circle.

Honest dialogue with supporters

Cullen explains that, “The need for regular and honest dialogue is essential. Supporters now want to know about the business side of their club also – twenty years ago, less even, that wasn’t the case.”

One of the biggest and most decorated football clubs in Europe, Tottenham Hotspur has responsibilities that extend far outside their football remit. The ‘Tottenham Hotspur Foundation’ for example, is the club’s vehicle for corporate responsibility.

It isn’t flimsy, good-on-paper PR by any stretch. It is instead dedicated example setting roll your sleeves up and make a difference PR.

That approach is something Cullen deeply values: “We have millions of supporters so we are an excellent conduit for getting a message out.” That then, in essence, is the modern day arm of football PR. Nicholson might well approve.

“Perversely addictive and uniquely challenging” are the words used by Cullen to describe her feeling towards football. I will second that.

Ups and downs at Bournemouth

Niall Malone: student, fan, employee

In my two seasons as press officer at AFC Bournemouth, the club went into (and thanks to a takeover came out of) administration and a transfer embargo.

They dismissed two managers and appointed a fans’ favourite, but rookie, manager Eddie Howe. The club also rebranded its commercial image, released legendary centre forward Steve Fletcher, survived relegation from League Two on the last home game of one season and gained promotion to League One the next.

Stressful moments were plentiful, dull ones less so. All things considered though, there isn’t one single episode I wouldn’t relive.

Cliché as it sounds, the idiosyncrasies of football tear up most rulebooks, mine included, and I am without doubt richer for the experience.

Even at League Two level, the potential football has to engage the public is substantial. It should come as no surprise then that on a grander scale, the World Cup is the planet’s most watched sporting spectacle.

The greatest show on earth

There are few occasions that offer the almost universal appeal of this month-long tournament. Points of engagement for retailers, sponsors and their communication teams are both significant and plentiful; electronics, food and drink, clothing, the list goes on. For example, ‘The British Beer and Pub Association’ estimated that three million people attended pubs and clubs for England’s final group game, while Sainsbury’s and Tesco also reported a surge in sales of World Cup themed merchandise. It isn’t coincidence either.

Marketing teams push their creative boundaries to drive sales, and in public relations it is important to be adaptable throughout a tournament famed for the unpredictable. Carling, for example, are running a series of ‘live’ adverts that air with the final score just seconds after the game has finished. The brewer has recorded over four hundred different scoreline combinations to ensure every eventuality is covered! Sensibly, both McDonalds and Carlsberg also have flexible marketing initiatives that they can tailor according to England’s progress.

The most successful campaigns are the ones that begin prior to the tournament. Once the competition begins, few messages break through the noise of the event itself.

Take for example, Nike’s “Write the future” campaign which debuted during the Champions League final, an entire month before the World Cup’s opening match. A report by market research company Neilsen claimed that Nike’s campaign has had twice as many references related to the World Cup than its rival and official World Cup partner, Adidas. Nike’s success is thanks in no small part to interaction with the fans.

The advent of social media has turned everyone into a pundit and Nike have capitalised on this by offering supporters the chance to send a fifty seven character message to a player of their choice, these notes then being displayed on big screens in the South African host cities.

This is the first World Cup ever to be held in Africa so unsurprisingly interest is high, very high. An estimated three thousand journalists and fifteen thousand radio and TV personnel are expected to frequent the press boxes and media centres of South Africa’s ten host stadiums.

The logistics of managing the demands and intrigue of the media masses is immense.  FIFA employ seven senior media managers and forty four press officers to ensure everyone, within reason, gets what they came for. The Football Association assume a similarly robust stance. The England squad are flanked by four senior media personnel. Adrian Bevington, the FA’s communications director, oversees their operations. A number of press officers and operations executives complete the rest of England’s second most important squad.

The FA’s PR strategy

For the most part the FA has succeeded in portraying a warm, football focused image. Proactively, pre tournament preparations were good. An excellent high altitude training facility in Austria was secured and from there the squad moved to a world class leisure complex in Rustenberg. This base camp allowed for engagement with the public, notably a visit to a local orphanage and free entry to a warm up game for ten thousand local children.

Reactively, they ensured stability by confirming that manger Fabio Capello would remain in charge after the World Cup, following intense speculation linking him with Inter Milan. They also moved quickly to apologise in the wake of Rooney’s rant after the Algeria game. Moreover, an open approach to rumours of dressing room unrest helped to quash most of that speculation. We may never know if there was mutiny in the training camp, but the constant stream of senior players (armed with a consistent message) at press conferences served to reassure all stakeholders.

I tend to agree with the old adage that it’s the performances on the pitch that will leave the lasting impression on your audience.

Indeed history dictates that a poor showing at a big tournament leads to a comprehensive and unrelenting attack on not just the team but the entire organisation they represent.

The reality is that football is now a business and a big one at that. Shrewd operators and expert tacticians are necessary throughout a football club – and not just in the dressing room.

Niall Malone is a PR student at Bournemouth University, currently on placement at The Football Foundation. He has previously held customer care, marketing and media and communication positions at Tottenham Hotspur FC, AFC Bournemouth, The Vancouver Whitecaps FC and at Deltatre Media.


  1. Andrew McGowan says:

    A very useful insight Niall!

    The artilce is greatly relevant to my dissertation: “The relationship between proactive PR strategies and football fans perceptions of their club during hard times” and it is always encouraging to see other work on the subject.

    Good luck to Bournemouth for the rest of the season!

  2. Normally I do not read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very
    pressured me to try and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me.
    Thank you, very nice article.

  3. Gibraltar football will soon come onto the European football map

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