After England's footballers were racially abused in Bulgaria, Emma Wright, Associate Director Sport + Parthership Marketing, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, assesses the communications efforts of The FA and reflects on the lessons all comms professionals can learn from the incident.
In the harsh spotlight of the inexcusable behaviour of Bulgarian fans even the most brilliant communicator may wilt. Yet as former pros, leaders of governing bodies and pundits stepped up, logged on and hit “tweet” there was one person who divided opinion perhaps more than any other – The FA Chairman Greg Clarke.
One line that sparked debate in the aftermath of the match Clarke's comment that: “We have to address [racism] at UEFA but, to be perfectly frank, we need to address it in England. We shouldn't take the moral high ground."
Is Clarke wrong? No. Absolutely not. There is a racism issue in English football and just because it is rarely stupid enough to be caught on camera it does not mean it’s not there. Ask Sterling or any other black player who gets it every time they go over to take a throw in. Heck, ask me after I was verbally abused for confronting discriminatory behaviour at my own club.
We should, objectively, be glad that Clarke is recognising that this problem exists. But that message didn’t land well. Nor did his “weak” assertions that UEFA would have to review the incident closely and people were quick to criticise him for not taking a firm enough stance. In truth, it was an incredibly tough communications challenge for The FA.
Here’s three lessons that communications professionals can take after watching the reaction to his comments after the game…
Miles Davis said “Time isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing”. Last night when the football world was loudly and correctly denouncing the Bulgarian fans, Clarke came in and hit some bum notes. While former pros and pundits were reacting emotionally and with passion, the Chairman of The FA must always carefully consider every word he says on UEFA and FIFA.
As he was on the ground Clarke was compelled to try to react as a voice of the fans and players but he will always be held back from truly speaking their language. The sort of measured response he must always give sticks out like a sore thumb in the heat of the moment and is best saved for the next day.
His reminder of problems in English football were also poorly timed. Monday night was for what happened there in Sofia, not for reminding people of the problems at home. Save that message for just before the weekend’s domestic games.
The American Press Institute conducted a study where users were shown posts shared by people they had previously identified as people they trusted or did not trust. Those posts led to the same news story on different sites – some on AP and some on a made-up news site. The researchers found that the person who shared the article had a bigger impact on how much readers trusted the content than who published the article.
In short, who tells you the message can matter more than the message. Looking at Greg Clarke’s assertion that we need to sort out England’s racism issues, is his message wrong? No. Do people want to hear it from Greg Clarke? No. In the eyes of many football fans, Clarke represents the organisation who fined Huddersfield £50k for their Paddy Power shirt stunt and Millwall £10k for racist chanting caught on camera. He is not the voice of the players who had been abused – let the players share their experience. Let Southgate speak for them. Was this the right time for The FA?
The events in Sofia should have caught no one by surprise. If you read my last points and thought “well what was he supposed to do, stay quiet?” then consider that racism in football has been building and building for years with the far right getting a bigger and bigger foothold in fanbases around the world. Bulgaria have previous with this. Clarke should have been prepared with a strong point of view. Instead he was forced to say something that was nothing like as committed or strong as the fans needed to hear. It was the equivalent of a goalkeeper coming out for a cross, hesitating, and getting clattered as a result.
Getting it right
Step forward one of the best communicators on the topic, Leon Mann. He waited until the next morning, when some of the emotion had calmed down, and made the same point as Clarke on problems in England.
Mann tweeted: “Just a note while we are all outraged by racism aimed at our England players. Let’s be this outraged & demand action when fans, players (current & former) at clubs we support have been caught racially abusing others. That’s the real test of how serious we are in this fight.”
Just a note while we are all outraged by racism aimed at our England players.— Leon Mann (@Leon_Mann) October 15, 2019
Let’s be this outraged & demand action when fans, players (current & former) at clubs we support have been caught racially abusing others.
That’s the real test of how serious we are in this fight.
Leon Mann runs BCOMS, a collective aimed at supporting people of African / Caribbean heritage in UK Sports Media. He set up Football Black List, celebrating the achievements of the black community in football. He is a master communicator, and in this case the right messenger at the right time.
These two very different examples give communications professionals a lot to think about as sports brands, governing bodies and all those with a voice in the game prepare for more challenging times ahead.