Sometimes it’s tempting to say that better PR can make up for anything… but that’s just a big fat lie.
Take Aston Villa Football Club. They’re a team that has just been relegated from the top flight of English football with four games of the season left.
This was the football equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade only with none of the honour, heroism and poetry. This was not a rush towards the Russian guns with lightly armed horses to maintain a reputation. This was a dash towards a brick wall in an ice cream van. Driven by a bloke in a circus clown’s outfit. Blunders to the left of them, fowl-ups to the right. Into the valley of PR nightmares they rode.
It’s tempting to feel truly sorry for the actual PR team at Aston Villa who have had to all too often pick-up the pieces. How much of a thankless task must that be?
However, in the interests in learning from failure, here are some lessons.
You cannot polish a turd
Yes, PR can do much. But if the product is broken all the PR and comms in the world can’t make up for it. If the owner isn’t interested and a string of bad appointments have been made there really is very little you can do.
I’m reminded of Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me PR is Dead.’ His advice to a burger chain facing flak for excrement traces in their burgers was not to talk about the community grants they gave and corporate social responsibility. It was to stop putting crap in the burgers.
Speak truth to power
Of course, what you say may not always be welcome. But honest, diplomatic feedback of what your customers are saying should be given house room. If the customers are angry about something it’s as well to know early. You won’t be welcomed in the short term, but speaking truth to power is a role of the comms person.
What happens on a night out…stays on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube
Aston Villa players carved out a special place for themselves through the season by being spotted ‘tired and emotional’ in a range of places. Jack Grealish started the trend pre-season in Tenerife. He then added Manchester to the list after losing to Everton.
Know how to spell
Eyebrows were raised when Frenchman Remi Garde was plucked from the French league to become the man who was going to save Aston Villa from a spiral of despair. In fine tradition the club took to the internet to orchestrate a welcome campaign.#welcomeremy the image on the club website read. Perfect. But his name was spelt wrong. It was Remi.
Know when to be humble
Defender Joleon Lescott has got very rich playing football for a number of clubs including Manchester City. A player who has won a handful of caps for England he has cashed in on the Premier League era. But after losing and getting abuse on Twitter he responded by tweeting a picture of his new car. Then he hurriedly deleted the car and blamed the fact that his pocket had accidentally tweeted the image.
Beware the corporate re-branding
Of course, a new look can breathe life into a new brand. But when the chips are down it can lead to criticism. You have taken your eye off the ball looking at fancy marketing stuff when you should be looking at the basics. Like winning games. Unfair? Perhaps. But perception is everything. So when Villa rebranded for £80,000 losing the traditional motto ‘Prepared’ from the badge they were open to criticism. Especially as they looked so unprepared losing every week.
Follow back… don’t unfollow
On social media, it costs nothing to follow someone back. On a basic level it says that you have been recognised even if your content isn’t slavishly being read. So as a time of the season when Villa needed all the friends they could mass unfollowing 47,000 fans on Twitter wasn’t the best thing to do. The reaction was not positive. Don’t do it.
There is no such thing as off-the-record
With Aston Villa relegated former player and radio phone-in host Stan Collymore laid into some of the more under-achieving players. Singling out Joleon Lescott the car tweeting defender responded by Twitter direct message privately offering to meet and sort things out as men. The screen grab was then tweeted by Collymore.
Say sorry… and mean it.
As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford and Villa were relegated the chief executive Steve Hollis posted an open letter to supporters. It expressed ‘regret’ for how the season panned out and was an exercise in acknowledging responsibility. As an attempt, it was good. No doubt he was hurting. But it would have been far more effective if the word ‘sorry’ had been used.
In the Middle Ages, stocks were used for public contrition. The miscreant was forced to sit there while rotten tomatoes and excrement was flung at them. There’s actually a social role for this. There’s also a place where this takes place today. It’s called the radio phone in. A grovelling apology by the owner on BBC Radio WM may go some way to healing the rift.
Creative commons credit: joshjdss / Flickr
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a major power of world football like Barcelona, Manchester United or Stoke City.
Here’s the surprise answer: Galatasaray.
Galatasaray? They’re a Turkish team formed in 1905. They’ve never won the European Cup but have a passionate army of supporters.
A third of all Turks support the team in a country that is the fourth largest on Facebook. That’s not even counting the huge world wide diaspora of Turks.
In 1993, Galatasaray supporters in a firey stadium of noise, flags, chants and flares met Manchester United with the banner: ‘Welcome To Hell!‘
In September 2010, 16 months after they set-up a Facebook page they had 4.5 million followers.
There’s a great blog in The Independent on how they did it. You can read the original here.
But whats this got to do with local government?
Because a Turkish football team and its fans have come across some universal truths that can work for other areas.
Here are four killer quotes from one of the club’s online team Ebubekir Kaplan that sum up the success….
INFORMATION: “They trust in us to give them information directly we respect their need and desire to know things directly from the club.”
SOCIAL: “Turkish people want to be socialable via Facebook and we’re using the right tools to reach them.”
FANS: “Players come and go, managers come and go, club officials come and go, but fans are constant. They’re the most important people.”
LISTEN: “We have to listen to supporters under all circumstances. So the main value is an outlet for the fans, and for communication with the fans.”
Okay, so maybe people aren’t quite as passionate on the face of it about local government as a football team.
People may love their park, love their favourite bit of countryside or maybe their library.
Maybe they’re passionate about a venue or a museum or more to the point an exhibition at the museum.
Would activity on Facebook before and during help capture memories on an exhibition on coal mining in the Black Country, for example?
EDIT: From Istanbul on Twitter @kaanozkan_ wishes to point out that Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup beating Arsenal in 2000. Disliking Arsenal as I do – but not all their supporters – I’m happy to point that fact out : )
Curoninja: Fan Cop http://www.flickr.com/photos/curoninja/777611157/in/faves-danieldslee/#
Striker Buzz Matrix: Galatasaray fire writing system http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Galatasaray_fire_writing_system.jpg
And like those fish battling up stream it sparks something deep inside many men – and yes, it is largely men.
It’s a deep seated yearning to hunt and gather Honduras midfielders. Then stick them into a book.
It’s a desire to tell the world: “Switzerland? Yes, I have the complete team. Even their star midfielder Hakan Yakan.”
What are Panini stickers? They’re adhesive pictures of footballers. But they’re far more than that.
Growing up in the 1980s Panini stickers were the social media of their day.
Armed with a pile of doubles – or swaps – children would show them to other fellow collectors. The ‘got, got, need, NEED!’ commentary gave a status update.
They brought people together. They still do.
Here are some tales of the power of Panini.
1 My brother Paul’s best present
Somewhere on my brother Paul’s book shelf is a tattered Europa 80 Panini sticker book from the European Championships. It cost thirty quid on ebay.
Paul is a reserved man. He’s not given to flights of fancy. The album was the only present I’ve ever given that has caused him to leap from his chair and smile as broad as Marco Tardelli.
It was my way of punching him on the shoulder and saying: ‘Good on you, brother.’
Why? Because it was the first sticker collection we both collected. Not together, of course, but as sibling rivals in a sticker arms race.
We would use a Subbutteo pitch to play tournaments with the stickers as players.
Our mum often asked us why we didn’t join forces and collect them together. Pah! What did she know?
She didn’t understand the thrill of opening a packet of stickers to find Karl Heinz Rumminigge or the Chile foil badge.
2 Panini West Midlands swaps Facebook
It’s a case of a digital native using the platform her knows to create something using social media to bring people together. As the Facebook group says ‘bringing the playground to Facebook.’
3 It costs £412 to collect a sticker album
Si Whitehouse is good at maths. He’s good at lots of things, actually. He worked out how much it would cost to collect a World Cup 2010 sticker album. It’s more than £400.
I’m not sure whether I should be amazed or frightened at the sums of money involved in collecting these things. You’d get better value for money from a Build HMS Victory in 100 easy to follow steps.
But you know what? I’m still collecting them.
4 Panini as Flickr set
Here he has captured brilliantly the 18-step process from buying, through anticipation, to sticking, to stocking the swaps pile.
5 Who is Senor Panini?
They are from Modena. They started in 1960. Two years later they were selling 29 million ‘units’. Their first World Cup collection was 1970. Thank you, Wikipedia.