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.
7 ways to get PR a seat at the boardroom table (and make your organisation realise the value of communication)
Communication is ever changing and has changed so much since I started my career.
There are now so many more people to communicate with and importantly, those people can also make a lot of noise, very easily. No matter how few of them there actually are.
So as Andrew Mitchell, Director of Strategic Communications and Policy, at Heathrow Airport said at a CIPR North East event last week for Strategic Communicators, “the best approach for any organisation is to be open and show that we are here to listen … and stay on front foot by communicating with people”.
I don’t think any of us would disagree with that. But how do we get our directors and ultimate decision makers in our organisations, to take this on board.
Last week we held our first Strategic Communications Forum in the North East. A new space where senior communications professionals can meet, network, learn from their peers, and debate issues pertinent to the communications sector.
Attended by PR professionals with the responsibility for communications in their organisation, it was facilitated by CIPR North East. It was open to CIPR and non-CIPR members from across North East England.
The main speaker at the first event was Andrew Mitchell from Heathrow Airport, and the following people were panel members
Putting PR at the heart of your business
The subject of the first event was putting PR at the heart of your business. So what tips can we share from our 30+ strategic communicators? From both the speaker and panel members and indeed the enormous talent that was in the room.
Improving your communications has got to be based on building pride and trust. But how do we get a seat at the boardroom table and make organisations realise the power of communication.
So, what is it that is holding PR back?
This week I start back to work properly in 2019, but taking the time during the first few days of the year, to look back at 2018 last week has really shown me how much commitment and effort I've put into developing myself both professionally and personally.
In addition to my day job as both a PR practitioner & lecturer, and a lifestyle blogger, in 2018 I've attended industry events and conferences, hosted a webinar for Vuelio, spoken at the Mojo Nation conference, written for the CIPR Influence online blog, organised the #CIPRNorthernConf, held the elected positions of Vice Chair and Social Media Manager for CIPR North East and organised the #PRideNE awards where I also won an award as Outstanding PR Practitioner in the North East.
CPD takes time and effort but is worth it. I started my Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) CPD after returning to work after maternity leave (at the time being on maternity leave didn't exempt you from having to accrue CPD points - thankfully that has now changed and you can read the CIPR Maternity Leave Package here).
After two years continuous CPD all CIPR members can attain Accredited Practitioner status. This is a status I've now retained for 5 years. But it's much more than just a label and here is why.
1. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
It's all too easy just to keep on doing the same thing all the time. No matter how successful you are at it. However to grow as a person and as a professional then you need to challenge yourself. In 2018 I spoke at a national conference for the very first time with a colleague. Yes it was nerve-wracking, yes it was quite scary. I was named and promoted as a speaker; and that felt really strange but also rewarding; however once I stepped onto the stage the nerves went.
Co-hosting a webinar for Vuelio was both an unnerving and exciting proposition. Not being able to receive any verbal or physical feedback from your audience as you speak really makes you think about what you are saying and doing. I was very glad when it was over but also very glad that I'd done it. My biggest tip is to make sure you are speaking about something you understand well, are passionate about and wiling to debate. The feedback after both sessions whether on stage or online were both big confidence boosters. Taking a 'risk' is a great way to grow.
Through blogging I have discovered so much about SEO and coding that I never would have learnt through my day job. The ethics of which are a daily challenge it has to be said, but my lifestyle blog has made me understand the skills and writing abilities required to enable my clients to perform better in this respect too. Over Christmas I've also re-branded, researched font trends for 2019, (outline fonts with their modern, industrial look makes brands look cutting-edge and mature - apparently), analysed the website data and evaluated the content in terms of readers wants and needs - all of which has taught me new skills.
Whether it is attending an event, volunteering on a committee or standing for election, getting involved with a professional body such as the CIPR is worth it. Aside from the personal and professional development, some of my closest friends are people I've met through volunteering with CIPR, who are a great support both personally and professionally. We all need people to lean on from time to time. Yes they are colleagues, but more than colleagues, they are people with similar values, aims and objectives to you, who understand what you do on a day to day basis, which makes for better mutual understanding all round.