Football’s Public Affairs Own Goal

The leaking of details about Project Big Picture, with plans to revise the Premier League, led to widespread discussion but the reaction of the Government was pretty clear – they were not impressed. So what went wrong and what can public affairs teach those involved?

After the plans were leaked, it was up to the Chairman of the EFL (English Football League), Rick Parry, who had been involved in the development of the plans, to go on the media and defend them. But DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden MP, was very quick to describe it as “Project Power Grab” and saying that “I hope the EFL will stop being distracted by this latest wheeze.”

He was unafraid to remind all those involved of the Conservative’s manifesto commitment “a fan-led review of football governance”. In other words, the Government can get involved and is unafraid to get involved.

This blog is not the place to discuss the in’s and out’s of the proposals but it is clear that not everyone held the same views as Dowden. If you do want to read more then The Athletic has an excellent analysis.

While appreciating that the report was leaked, what did the main players get wrong as far as their public affairs is concerned?

  • Even in areas where the Government does not necessarily have direct control that does not stop them for expressing clear opinions. It should never be assumed that just because Government is not technically involved that they don’t think they should be. The litmus test is if an issue will make a newspaper front or back page then expect Government to comment.
  • Never blindside a Government – it appears that Ministers had little idea that the plans were being worked on. While they had instructed football to sort itself when it comes to helping lower league clubs through covid-19, that did not mean they should do it without their involvement.
  • Covid-19 has heightened sensitivities – Government needs to be seen an omnipotent in its support of sectors, that includes football. So despite a very large sum being promised to lower league clubs, the Government was always likely to be hostile because they did not help design the scheme. No involvement meant that there was no possibility of claiming any credit for the support.
  • Not invented here – any scheme run completely by others, in this case largely by two American owned clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United, is always liable to be criticised. So time should always be always be built in for officials and Ministers to input (or at least have the opportunity to).
  • No chance to help sell the product – there was no opportunity provided for the Government to get any of their key messages into the plans or the communications. We can put the communications to one side as the report was leaked but if they had got some messages into the proposals then they could have claimed some credit or may have stood down from the worst of the direct criticism.

Having seen examples in the past of adverse reaction even I was surprised by the speed and virulence of Dowden’s intervention. That infers a certain sensitivity and / or annoyance all of which could have been avoided.

Football is more than just a game and more than just a business, it is at the heart of many communities and our cultural life. Recognising this would have helped to avoid the reaction, as would just thinking back to manifesto.

The Conservative Party often concentrates on football in a way that it seems not to apply to, say, rugby or cricket. Any plans for reform, even with money available to help clubs impacted by Covid-19, was never going to be a politics or government-free zone.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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