Defend, defend, defend – crisis communication at Spurs

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Problems at my club Spurs have now gone well beyond an inability to keep a clean sheet on the football pitch.

This week, more long suffering fans turned their ire towards the chairman, Daniel Levy and ENIC (the owners) and this was widely reported in the media.

In times of crisis such as this the true soul of the people running the club becomes very evident.

The official response to the club playing loud music at the end of the last game against Stoke to drown out boos was that it was down to ‘a new operator taking charge of volume’. Unfortunately, this does not wash with fans; they believe it smacks more of a defensive (and archaic) PR belief in controlling communication and snuffing out dissent. There is good reason not to trust this response. The club has been working hard behind the scenes to prevent fans bringing banners into the ground that may have anti Levy or anti ENIC messages. The official reason for this is that it is down to ‘health and safety’ grounds that it may incite anger with fans who hold a different view, when there is no evidence that this is at all likely to happen.

The result of this communication management has just been to inflame the situation; an #ENICOUT campaign on twitter is now gathering momentum.

A text book approach to this situation would be for Levy, or someone on the board, to start communicating, fast, with some empathy. This is unlikely to happen as Levy is notoriously media shy. However, he does have a board member who has a very strong PR pedigree in Donna-Maria Cullen, formerly of Good Relations and Chime Communications. So, it will be interesting to see how the situation unravels.

Based on how the club has managed communication in the past, my guess is that they will try to ‘tough it out’ in the hope that the media will move on to another story. Instead, this situation could be seen as an opportunity to enter into a new relationship with fans, the media and the local community, one based on much higher levels of transparency and engagement. However, this is highly unlikely. After all, there won’t be a shareholder revolt as Levy de-listed the club from the stock exchange in 2006 and ENIC hold 85% of the shares in Tottenham Hotspur Ltd.

So, perhaps accepted wisdom in crisis communication does not apply to the Premier League? With no major shareholder pressure, fans are left to their own devices and they will not vote with their feet and not turn up to games that they have paid good money to attend.

However, as we know, social media can be tremendously powerful in creating activist communities so maybe fans can be galvanised in new ways now.

In many respects, Premier League football clubs as businesses take a much more closed management approach than most other large UK business. Because of the way they are owned, they seem immune to modern expectations of openness and transparency. As a consequence of this, PR practice is often constrained. For example, the official communication provided to Spurs fans is often just blatant propaganda.

At the end of the day, disengaged fans are unlikely to create the sort of atmosphere that is conducive to good team performance. The result of this is a team that will not qualify for Europe and this will directly impact revenue and the value of the business. Relegation would have an even more serious financial impact.

Ultimately, although there is a crisis at Spurs at the moment, this is a situation that goes beyond one club. It requires a new approach to football club ownership in the UK. One that is based more on the German model where they understand that football is not solely for the benefit of private investors. As Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern Munich, put it: ‘We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.’

Financial fair play is currently being introduced as a way of regulating what clubs can spend on players. So why not introduce fan fair play too, where fans are more closely involved in clubs as formally constituted associations with members who elect officials?