Opinion: European Super League – scoring a PR own goal?

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WAS the concept of a European Super League (ESL) a stroke of marketing genius but just got the PR execution wrong? What does the debacle say about the difference and relationship between marketing and PR?, asks Michele Filippi.

We can assume that the clubs who initially agreed to join the ESL – including Manchester City, Chelsea FC and Atletico Madrid – were convinced of the marketing rationale and believed the rest of the clubs would ‘follow the money’ leading them all into profit. JP Morgan’s £4.3 million backing would suggest there was a strong business case, on paper at least. But what of the fans, managers, and footballers? Well, it would seem they weren’t considered right up to the last minute. It has been reported that one of the reasons for this was that the owners understood the connection between players and fans enough not to create difficulty for the players. But the journalist, Jonathan Northcroft, concluded in the Sunday Times on April 25, 2021, that, “they appeared to understand little else.” He went on to write that PR’s working for the ‘Big Six’ described the messaging as “a sketched on the back-of-a fag-packet strategy”.

And so it came to pass that the announcement by owners of the ‘Big Six’ English Football Clubs to join ESL triggered one of the biggest backlashes in the media in recent times. What was interesting about this institutional PR ‘own goal’ was that the handling of the communications itself created the crisis. There was no major incident or legal negligence, yet the damage it caused to the corporate reputation and trust in the owners of these clubs is still having a very real and negative impact.

The words of Warren Buffett come to mind, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The Chartered Institute of Public Relations says “Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behavior. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.” Marketing, as defined by The Chartered Institute of Marketing, is “The management process which identifies, anticipates, and supplies customer requirements efficiently and profitably”. 

So what top PR or marketing lessons can be learned from the week that football kicked Covid off the headlines…

You need to understand your audience and get inside the heads of those you are communicating with. The important word here is ‘with’ not ‘to’. Of course, it isn’t just football that has tribes, fans, and communities of interest. Looking back to 2018, the makers of Iron Bru reduced its sugar content in line with the sugar tax, prompting fans to stockpile and sign a ‘Hands off our Iron Bru’ petition. In March this year, AC Barr decided to reintroduce its old and improved recipe after the public outcry. 

But never was the collective and individual power of public protest over a change to a game more visible or audible than in the media over ESL. Understanding your audience’s values, beliefs and motivations is something that strategic PR and marketing puts first. As Graeme Sounes put it in the case of the club owners, “They failed to grasp the guy who buys a season ticket probably sits in the same seat his dad did and beyond that, possibly his grandfather”. 

It is important to know the influencers. When the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Duke of Cambridge blast your plans, you know you are in trouble. Manchester United professional footballer Marcus Rashford’s tweet of a Sir Matt Busby quote, ‘Football is nothing without fans’, gained 511.6K likes. It is a reminder of the power of a mobile phone in the hands of a key influencer or activist who can engage with a wide audience on social media 24/7.

PR consults and engages before it informs. It seeks to bring stakeholders along in the journey of a major change and to build advocacy. Similarly, in marketing well researched and verifiable consumer insights can deliver a compelling brand positioning strategy. Communication happens in the receiver not the sender. Understanding who and/or what can influence and persuade an audience has to be at the heart of the communication planning process.  

It does seem incredible that the brave business owners of these mega-brands didn’t have a pre-emptive plan in place for the potential opposition to their bold course of action. Perhaps that’s the problem right there – were they too far removed from the grassroots to understand the repercussions? It’s a lesson they won’t be allowed to forget any time soon.