Football has got to get the press on its side

The Premiership kicks off on Saturday, and battle lines will again be drawn between the clubs and those who write about them. It's time for a new approach, says Phil Hall
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The Independent Online

Football clubs have long enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the media. Managers such as Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho regularly fall out with the press unless the football correspondents are wholesomely flattering about them.

It is easier when you are one of the big four - Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool - to have a war with the media and create a trench mentality - a sort of they don't like us, we don't care attitude - because these clubs will still earn the majority of the revenues at stake from television, capacity crowds and big sponsorship. But, for other clubs, that attitude can seriously hamper the chances of success

Many Premiership clubs attract negative publicity or barely get a mention in the national newspaper sports sections.

Successful players perform with a swagger, not chips on their shoulders. Those players want to be noticed, they crave rave reviews and live off that confidence. Negative publicity creates doubts in players' and managers' minds, pitches players against team-mates and will often reveal hidden differences.

So why do half the Premier League clubs still avoid engaging the media and thus miss out on the opportunity to excite fans and players alike - and more importantly prevent the own goals that can destroy morale?

First, they would rather risk bad headlines than chase positive ones. Press officers are often on the bottom rung of the command structure. Setting up an interview with a star player is fraught with risk. One sentence out of place creates banner headlines, and the player blames not his own loose tongue but the press officer. Managers and directors have been known to join in - they don't want to fall out with a £10m striker in favour of a £30,000-a-year press officer.

Second, they do not appreciate the value of a club exciting its fans through the media and creating an upbeat atmosphere in the dressing room.

Last August I became the media consultant at newly promoted West Ham United. They had been slaughtered by the press after two years in the Championship league, following relegation from the Premiership. Star players had been sold, and supporters had been roundly abusing players.

The board had halved their own salaries, appointed a new manager, sanctioned the purchase of a new young side and worked their socks off to turn around the potential financial disaster the club was facing. In the first season, they got to the play-offs and lost to Crystal Palace; the second year, they won promotion in the same match.

Throughout the second season the press called for the sacking of the manager, Alan Pardew, board directors were threatened with physical violence by so-called supporters, and young players barely out of school were booed on the pitch. The club understandably tried to keep its collective head down. With some justification they accused the press of adding to their woes and avoided them as much as possible.

The board asked my advice, and it was simple. Secrecy suggests you have something to hide. Come out fighting, tell the media the truth, let them know the whole story, take the knocks, but the positives will be greater because you are an honest set of people giving it your all, so why hide?

In manager Alan Pardew, the club has one of the most positive people in the game. But he had been affected by constant abuse, and his players had become suspicious of the motive behind the media attacks on them.

An example of how secrecy had affected the club involved a situation involving Pardew and star striker Teddy Sheringham. After one game Sheringham and Pardew exchanged views about how the game had not gone the club's way tactically. It was heated in a football sort of way, forgotten instantly. I know them both, they each care passionately about the club and respect each other's position. The media got to hear about it and the headlines started. Sheringham and Pardew fall out; split tearing dressing room apart; Sheringham wants manager's job, that sort of thing. This utter nonsense was fuelled by the club's understandable reluctance to engage the press, in case it misfired.

When I met Pardew his attitude was punchy and full of belief in the club. He understood the fans' attitude, but felt there was so much good going on from the board to the pitch to Shirley, the tea lady, that it was time people understood what they were about.

The first move was to treat football reporters with respect. They had previously been herded into poorly maintained facilities or made to wait in the rain for a press conference. The club invested in new rooms, laid on refreshments and made all players and management available for interview.

They hired a press officer, Miranda Nagalingam, who had a dedicated role to look after the media and facilitate them. Previously, the role had been a multi-task involving press, publications, public relations, and so forth. Initially, players were escorted into interviews and encouraged to open up. If I heard about an angle that would make a good story, the writers were briefed in advance.

The manager and I prepared for press conferences by seeking stories and angles that would appeal to the attendees, rather than just reacting to their questions. There have been a few negative stories, but hundreds of positive ones. We have answered every inquiry honestly and built up a rapport so that when there is a story circulating that is way off beam, we can correct it, because the writers know we will not deny the truth.

So when people doubt the wisdom of Max Clifford working within the England set-up, I can honestly say their reservations are misplaced. He will open up the England team like never before, and end the mistrust that has existed between the media and international management.

The media overhype has put huge pressure on the England players, with inevitable results. I suspect Max will manage expectations, while encouraging confidence and a positive attitude that is realistic. Access and openness in football encourages a relationship that benefits both sides.

Last August when I first sat down with Pardew he said something I could scarcely believe, something which really brought home to me the power of the media in influencing the mood of a football club's dressing room. "This is between you and me," he said. "But if you can get the press to see what we are really doing here and not knock us for every risk we take, I think we just might surprise them."

Surprise them they did. Tipped at the season's outset as relegation favourites, West Ham finished ninth, got to the Cup Final and attacked teams with big reputations without fear. Next month they begin a European campaign, having qualified for the Uefa Cup.

And that is not PR spin.

Phil Hall was the editor of the News of the World (1995-2000); editor-in-chief of Hello! magazine (2001-2003), and editorial director of development, Trinity Mirror (2003-2005). He runs Phil Hall Associates, a public relations company.