A strategy of clear, honest and open two-way communication from Sunderland AFC
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.
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 that 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.
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.
The approach is fascinating, so far Sunderland have had pretty good times on and off the pitch, it will be even more fascinating to watch how it develops with the inevitable ups and downs of football.