The Super League: A PR parable in 48 hrs
April 22, 2021 • 5 minute read
If I am ever faced by someone who doubts the importance of comms and the power of PR, I will recount the parable of the ‘Super League’.
It is difficult to recall a recent issue which has mobilised so many so quickly and in so united a fashion. As Bill Shankly said “some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” That, of course, in and of itself, is a depressing thought when one considers just what could be catalysed if the same effect was achieved for climate change, or equality, or animal welfare – for example. But it is just that passion, unleashed with such ferocity over the past few days, that the organisers of the Super League (SL) completely failed to comprehend. Or, if they did comprehend and anticipate it, they thought they could weather the storm. Boy were they wrong.
Let us leave aside the faux pas and PR naivety of the announcement itself (for example, not briefing the team manager, or players, who would be holding a press conference that day and individual clubs using a statement which contained quotes from hated rivals). From a communications perspective, the writing was on the wall from the moment the announcement was made in many respects.
Commentators, including the likes of Gary Neville, were quick to say that having seen the backlash the SL organisers would be quickly rolling out the PR machine to mitigate the damage caused. But that stereotyping of PR fundamentally misses the point. The PR should have started months, even years, ago: The merits of the SL, if it has any, articulated consistently over time to establish a narrative; Supporters’ groups engaged with and brought onside so that when a formal announcement was made they would be part of the story; If indeed this was, as some suggested, a ploy to force UEFA’s hand to reform the Champions League then that messaging should have been sold in, gradually though robustly by the individual clubs and their stakeholders to build a case for change. The apparent deal–making behind closed doors without consultation is what stood out most for many fans. Contrast this with the efforts of Jordan Henderson who convened a meeting of Premier League captains and subsequently orchestrated a social media campaign which really did turn the tide.
But the manner in which the SL project was announced, and the language which was used, erred on a further, and even more crucial issue.
The clubs involved are (were) global brands. Their intangible values are huge, and it is this that the organisers were seeking to leverage in establishing a new tournament format which, they believed, would appeal to a new target demographic. But those brands have value for a reason. It isn’t that these clubs are ‘rich’ and wanted to cement that position of financial superiority. In the case of the Spanish and Italian clubs the reality is their financial position is precarious, to say the least, but their brand values are huge. Those brands have value because of their history, legacy, tradition, track record. In the case of Liverpool FC, for example (disclaimer, I am a Liverpool fan) the narrative stretching from Shankly to Klopp is what the club is, and it is inextricably intertwined with the city of Liverpool and its people. In treating this as disposable in the quest for new riches from new audiences, the SL organisers always risked undermining the value of the brands they own. According to Brand Finance, the whole failed venture may cost the clubs up to €4.3bn in brand value. If the venture had been progressed, in many ways the brands wouldn’t have existed at all.
The Premier League clubs involved have been, relatively, swift to improve communications in the face of the backlash. John W Henry’s emotional address to camera was, it must be said, something of a triumph in the context. By speaking directly (as far as is possible) to the fanbase and taking full responsibility the Liverpool owner would have won some brownie points. An impersonal written statement would not have had the same effect. Well played.
But the road back to restoring the reputation of these clubs, and their owners, is long. Trust is built up over time through not just by saying the right thing, but by ensuring words are supported by actions. In our world of social (media) and stakeholder activism there is a lesson there for all brands. Purpose and authenticity matters. JP Morgan, the backers of the SL venture are finding this out themselves – called out for providing funding for something which many have suggested runs completely contrary to the bank’s stated principles on ESG. Indeed, the affair has resulted in the bank being downgraded by at least one sustainability rating agency. ‘Intangible’ issues have demonstrable and critical business impacts. As The Telegraph noted, Chuka Umunna, freshly appointed to his ESG role at JP Morgan, has his work cut out. So do the so-called ‘Big 6’.