The lessons from Leeds United: the ugly, the bad and the good

By Stuart Baird,

I was forced to be a Leeds United fan at the age of 5 by my uncle in 1974. He lured me in with a full kit and picture of the team fully signed by Revie’s team. Once you’re with a football club it is until your dying day. How it conducts itself, its history, traditions and future is part of your identity.

So, when Leeds United melted social media this week by unveiling a new club crest which was universally disparaged not least by its own fans, former and current players and influential Leeds fans like Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter, it hurts.

The crest is of a man giving the ‘Leeds salute’ which to the outside world looks at best like a Roman Centurian giving a hail Caesar, and at worst looks like man trying to cover up an embarrassing crest.

At the heart of the story was a now infamous 10,000 response consultation. Within hours over 40,000 had signed a petition to make sure the new crest never saw the light of day. So who were these mysterious 10,000 respondents? I sense the cold dead hand of a Twitter or social poll all over this.

PR practitioners, branding agencies and clients know you are only as good as your insight and the insights here were badly off-kilter.

My uncle has run a Leeds and England supporters club in Yorkshire since the late 1960s. Its members are hardcore, they go home and away everywhere to watch the team. Pre-season friendly in Thailand – yep they are there. Under 23s match in Barnsley on a wet February Tuesday evening – we’re going.

Did he or any of the members know about the consultation? No. Likewise season ticket holders had no idea. Leeds get around 26,000 on average to their home games – a straw poll at a few games would have got to a quicker and better answer.

Within almost minutes social media threw up hundreds of disparaging memes and by the same evening the managing director of Leeds, Angus Kinnear was announcing to the media that he and the Board would be going back to the drawing board.

Kinnear, a well-respected operator formerly of West Ham, handled it well. When the crisis hit, the club was true to its word, listened to the fans and had a rethink.

Leeds United have a new owner Andrea Radrizzani (which, by the way is from the Italian ‘to make straight’!). There is a great feeling at the club. A new culture of listening to fans, buying back the football club and investing in the team.

Crises don’t create character, it reveals it. We’ll move forward, and mark my words, people will be talking about Leeds for all the right reasons over the next few years.

Stuart Baird, has worked in PR for over 25 years, is a three times CIPR Gold winner. @BakerBairdComms.

Image via Twitter/Leeds United.

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