Man City’s FFP saga: risks and rewards of a high-profile communicator-in-chief

February 20, 2023

When Manchester City FC was charged with more than 100 breaches of the Premier League’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules in early February, it came as a bolt out of the (sky) blue for many – not least City itself which, according to some, had not been made aware of the impending charges until after the press had been briefed. Its defence flat-footed, City scrambled to get its communications into formation.

A long road lies ahead, but the club’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of the news breaking provides a compelling case study in leadership communications.

Financial Fair Play and reputation in the beautiful game

Whether or not there is any truth in the FFP claims being brought against Manchester City, there certainly ought to have been a clear contingency plan in place, ready to be executed, especially when taking into consideration the preceding four-year investigation into its accounts.

Attention has swiftly centred on one man: Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola, the club’s Spanish manager. As the one facing the press every week without fail at his pre and post-match press conferences, he finds himself in the position of de facto spokesperson and communicator-in-chief.

In theory, the power of one, clear voice in communicating a ‘crisis’ is obvious. If one individual unequivocally spearheads the attack, it provides ownership and clarity. The scope for mixed messaging, or crossing of wires, is much reduced.

But this situation is nuanced. Guardiola is a highly qualified coach and master (soccer) tactician, whose principal focus relates to on field performance, player management and welfare. Yet, he finds himself defending the club in a much broader legal, commercial and corporate context. In other words, not his job. The fact that some of the charges pre-date Guardiola’s time at the club muddies the water further still.

More problematic than this is the collision of personal and organisational reputation. Problems arise when a chief spokesperson and the organisation they represent are not aligned. If the reputation of the individual and the collective are both on the line, and one person speaks for both entities, a conflict of interest can form. At the very least, scope for inconsistent communications arises.

Consistency, calmness and consideration are the MVPs of crisis comms

This was partially evident in May 2022. Speaking about UEFA allegations, Guardiola defended the club, but at the same time showed an eagerness to safeguard his own reputation, threatening to leave “the day after” if he ever discovered that the club’s hierarchy had lied to him. This attempt to create personal distance between himself and accusations of financial foul play may not have best-served the club as a whole. Media sources were quick to dig up these comments in the absence of a City voice to attach to the latest twist in the story as it broke. Snappy soundbites live long in the media’s memory.

Since then, however, the communicator-in-chief has changed tack, going into ‘attack mode’ and throwing unambiguous support behind his employers.

In his first press conference since the new Premier League charges went public, Guardiola presented a united front, arguing that City had “already been condemned” and stressing the value of the UK’s ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle of justice when it comes to an FFP or other such charge.

This response clearly sought to toe the party line. A sensible move, but inconsistency is always pounced upon, with some outlets publishing side-by-side ‘comparison videos’ for May 2022 and February 2023 to highlight the apparent shift in Guardiola’s comms approach.

Despite this, lessons have seemingly been learnt. If situational control of a crisis is to be conveyed, a calm and considered approach is preferable to a heat-of-the-moment reaction. In communications, there is a fine line between an authentic reaction and an emotional one. Given that English football fans are among the most volatile of stakeholders, that line becomes even finer.

All of this highlights the importance of maintaining clear internal and consistent external communications, especially with high-profile leadership figures who must frequently face the media.

Two key tenets of any great managers’ playbook would have proved useful in preparing for this FFP episode. Meticulous planning ahead and understanding of the potential risks attached to a situation, in order to have a gameplan ready to deploy as necessary is one. The other is thorough training and preparation in non-crisis mode, so that any harsh lessons are not learned when stepping out onto the pitch for real.

Find out more about  crisis comms and preparing to face the media.

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