Sunderland AFC’s two-way football comms revolution

By Deb Sharratt,

Last Friday afternoon I joined several students at Newcastle University (where I deliver some of their PR & Communication modules to both undergrads and postgrad students), to hear all about the strategy of open communication that the new owners of Sunderland Association Football Club have instilled at the north east football club.

Charlie Methven, executive director and part owner of SAFC was joined by Steve Feekins, a digital editor for FIFA and Simon Rushworth, a former NUFC reporter to debate the issue and answer our questions at the event organised by Jonathan Ward.

Football Communications

As tempting as it may have been for some of the Sunderland fans in the audience to ask how to get a ticket to Wembley to see Sunderland play in the Checkatrade Trophy Cup Final we were there to hear all about their communication strategy.

As an aside for those who don’t know the Checkatrade Trophy, formally known as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, is a knockout competition for clubs playing in League One and League Two and which has featured Academy teams from Premier League Category One clubs since 2016/17. This year’s final is on March 31.

Now I’m a Newcastle United fan, stifled on any meaningful communication from my club for many years now, so it was fascinating to hear about a different approach at the club down the road.

Honest and open two-way communication

Clear, honest and open two-way communication is quite a revolutionary concept in modern football. The two-way symmetrical model of public relations as described in Grunig’s Excellence Theory is focused primarily in making sure that decisions made by an organisation are mutually beneficial between itself and its audiences. Digital advancements have made it easier to communicate directly with our audiences, but effective communication requires dialogue and listening as well as just the dissemination of information.

Most football clubs were founded by football supporters to enable football supporters to watch live football. Without these fans there is very little difference between professional and amateur football. Charlie believes that football clubs are morally owned by the fans and they deserve to hear everything about their club up to the point when it is no longer in their interest – explained as commercially sensitive information, where legal proceedings are involved or on-going negotiations. When these points are reached is obviously decided upon by the management which is why expertise and structure within an organisation is still required to support a strategy of open communication.

But the reaction to more communication with fans through regional newspapers, TV, radio, podcasts, fanzines, forums and social media is not always as you’d think it would be. We heard from Charlie that although many fans are very happy to get more information some fans just want to hate their club or think it will be destroyed by being too honest and don’t appreciate the openness.

Proving you just can’t please everyone.

10 Ways to Open Up Two Way Communication Channels

I’d love to make number one ‘appoint a PR person as your Executive Director, start with PR & Communications and then take the rest from there’, as Sunderland have done but as that’s not an imminent change for most organisations so I’ll actually start my ten points here, with examples of how Sunderland AFC are putting them into practice.

1 Establish the purpose of an organisation: Remember what you are there to do and re-imagine what that should look like now.

2 Do and not say: The football manager spends over three hours every week talking to both traditional and online new media.

3 Walk the walk: Non-verbal communication is as important as what is said. A player’s body language and the comments they make in interviews is important but equally so is them genuinely applauding fans at the end of a game and not wearing headphones when getting off the team coach and engaging with fans.

4 Demonstrate you value feedback: Fans were asked what’s the one thing they want to change. They said the seats which had turned pink from the sunshine (and yes, we do have sunshine up north). The seats were changed.

5 Make open communication part of the organisation’s culture: Charlie explained to us how the overall communications strategy has an integral role in internal communication right from the recruitment process, for all employees including that of the football manager.

6 Become an authoritative voice: To do this you need to gain the trust of your audience. You must answer the difficult questions, no matter who they come from.

7 Identify the most appropriate channels for communication: For example, a club cannot criticise their players after a game, as well as players they are also employees. Fans want post-match coverage to deconstruct games. This is best delivered by a fan channel, with the support of the club. Management and players take part in podcasts. Match reports are still written for the regional press.

8 Be adult about what might happen: Football is very emotive and disappointing results will bring an outpouring of anger. Be ready for it, expect it, embrace it, even encourage it but then analyse that data and learn from it.

9 Build your reputation bank: Increase your credibility with all stakeholders including employees, media and fans. Introducing a fear factor in your media relations with an aggressive defensive stance will only contribute to a club’s downfall in the end.

10 Lead and be a disruptor in your industry: Push boundaries and take the time to influence internally within your organisation as to why this is necessary.

One last point. Charlie told us how he’d studied Theology at Oxford University before becoming and journalist and then moving into public relations. He didn’t think was a relevant subject for a sports journalist, however, we all know that football is a religion in the north east.

I doubt that better communications are going to change many supporter’s allegiances, however, it may strengthen existing support, enable you to re-engage with your fan base, and maybe attract those new to football.

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Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash


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