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Public Relations, Sunderland and Football - a match made in an irrational hyperbole of emotion!

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“You wouldn’t conduct your business in a physical Twitter so why would you try on virtual Twitter?” - Neil Graney on Sunderland’s PR strategy, Stewart Donald and the way public relations is used throughout football.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The theory of Public Relations (PR) has evolved since the early 1800’s. Back then, the ‘Press Agentry’ model, was the first theoretical development of PR as a communication exercise. It was one-way communication, the creation of news to essentially influence public opinion; to coerce and manipulate an audience in the general public to think and subsequently act in a certain way.

Practitioners of this model didn’t and still couldn’t care less about the accuracy, credibility or accountability of the communication. Sound familiar? It should!

The Press Agentry model has been used ever since, generally in a subtle manner in marketing techniques to subconsciously sway consumer behaviour. However, it could be argued, this changed and became mainstream in mid-1990’s. When Roger Ailes, a strict catholic conservative set up Fox News in the US for Rupert Murdoch, his mantra was very much underpinned by the Press Agentry Model. It sounds familiar as it was Ailes who later campaigned for Donald Trump to become presidential candidate and subsequent leader of the free world.

Yep, this is the mantra of the big orange berk who currently resides in the White House.

In his book, “The Loudest Voice In The Room”, Gabriel Sherman described how Ailes:

...was trying to attract viewers who did not want television to tell them what happened in the world. They wanted television to tell them how to think about what happened in the world—the news itself would be secondary.

Remarkably, this mainstream approach has caught on in the UK - Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (he hates that), Farage, Brexit, a certain bus... £350 million... let’s stop there.

Euro - “England v Wales” Getty Images

How does this relate to football? Well think Sky Sports and Super Sunday - what’s super about Burnley v Southampton, for example? Outlandish claims made managers under pressure; scripted interviews by players; the claims made by big brands about their products; even rhetoric from FIFA and other governing bodies - the use of the Press Agentry Model is pretty standard across the game.

By the 1900’s the ‘Public information model’ had been developed. Before, during and after two world wars, conveyance of information became critical. First used by governments and organisations such as the military and law enforcement, this model was still a one-way communication tool, however, the accuracy and credibility of the information became critical. Subsequently, large organisations across the globe have adopted this approach to communicate vital information to interested stakeholders. PLC’s issue statements to shareholders, Private companies issue statements to press, whilst football clubs generally issue statements for the benefit of their fans and followers.

The statement issued last week by Sunderland AFC was a prime example of this approach. Seeking to clarify the takeover situation, given its prolonged nature, the recent rumours in the press, and seemingly downright lies and fabrication of rumours, which had seemingly emanated on social media since the most recent ‘talk in’.

The club made the move to address its public.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The problems with this approach? In its nature it is one-way communication - it’s monologue rather than dialogue at the most important of times. Therefore words are picked apart and conclusions re interpreted by individuals.

Secondly, to be effective, such messages need to avoid ambiguity. The perfect statement would follow the sworn testimony approach of UK courts, where “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is demanded. Unfortunately, football doesn’t work that way - it’s more “you can’t handle the truth” (Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup in a Few Good Men for the younger readers!).

The statement was full of ambiguity so fans were left disappointed, frustrated and even angered. In fact, you could say, the statement started a whole new array of conspiracy theories and conclusions. In football terms, it was a bit of an own goal as a PR exercise.

Back to the theory. By the 1960’s, the “Two Way Asymmetric model” had been developed. Socially awkward marketers stand aside, this was the first time PR practitioners considered the two way communication process – valuable feedback was sought from consumers to help evaluate products, processes and experiences. Ultimately, this model helps organisations understand consumer psychology better, and in theory, should inform the whole organisational strategy. Coca Cola and McDonalds were two of the pioneers, know your consumers, and products and key marketing communication can even be tailored to sub markets to get the most effective reactions.

In football terms, research into fan typologies and cultures is well developed. It’s why some clubs have drums and others despise drums. It why some clubs has greater identity than others. At Sunderland, despite their efforts, the current owners still do not fully understand the psychology of Sunderland fans, which is very unique and extremely complex.

From its working class roots to its recent prolonged decade of abject failure, and everything else in between we are a complex bunch, and there are loads of us!

For what it’s worth I don’t necessarily blame them - it takes time and resources. However, it’s important to use communication at the right time, at the right tone and, where possible, provide opportunities for dialogue.

Sunderland v Bradford City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Finally, the last theoretical model of PR is the “Two Way Symmetric model”. Seen to be the most ethical and authentic PR technique, this approach is based on constant dialogue with an audience to change processes for the better. It helps with conflict resolution; it demands mutual respect and mutual understanding. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Since Stewart Donald took over he has attempted to utilise this approach as a PR technique on Twitter. The seat change project, helping supporters on broken down coaches, the Boxing Day ticket giveaway - they’re all examples of bloody good PR. All authentic, all very respectful and based on a great understanding of what was needed.

However, as a platform, Twitter is a cesspit.

If Twitter were a physical space, you’d never visit. It’s devoid of real policing or protection. It’s a place where PEOPLE LIKE TO SHOUT and abuse strangers based on no real educated argument. A place where your fiercest rivals want to belittle you and constantly take the p**s! Nope, physical Twitter would be the worst place to be.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I previous wrote an article on the psychology of trolls - trolling being the deliberate provocation of others using deception and harmful behaviour on the Internet which often results in conflict, highly emotional reactions, and disruption of communication in order to advance the troll’s own amusement.

The final part of that definition is why Stewart Donald should not try and conduct all kinds of PR on Twitter. You wouldn’t conduct your business in a physical Twitter so why would you try on virtual Twitter?

Now don’t get me wrong, Twitter is an online space I frequent daily. For news, reaction and networking it works great. However, the fake news, the ill-informed debates and lack of control mean users can abuse, discriminate and concoct their own fabricated PR on any subject they wish. At the same time, a destructive minority are waiting in the wings to be told how to think about what happened, or maybe what didn’t happen, just like those viewers of Fox News.

From such rhetoric, labels such as ‘snowflakes’, ‘loonies’, ‘Alt right’, ‘remoaners’, ‘saboteurs’ are formed and before you know it, division rules. In respect to Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, this is where the ‘charlatans’/’chancers’ rhetoric is formed.

Should Stewart Donald reappear on the platform, I’d suggest he does so in a more strategic matter. He needs protection from the clubs own PR strategy, and he needs to focus on which PR model suits each piece of information. We live in a world where personal online communication is easy, but organisational communication to the masses is far from simple.