Engagement or Consultation

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Key Insights:

  1. Factor in engagement throughout your decisions around issues that directly affect fans (read the report on Organisational Listening by Jim Macnamara)
  2. Always consider engagement as a process, not an event. It might take several steps to engage, and you should always look to involve your supporters’ trust or independent supporters’ group somewhere at the start of the process
  3. Remember: every company and organisation struggles with engagement. You’re not alone!

What is the difference between ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’, and where should you use engagement?

Engagement and consultation are used a great deal in other areas of business where the views of stakeholders are sought. Property Development/Built Environment is one. Developers will use consultation to get the views and opinions of local people about a particular development or building they’ve decided on.

In this context, consultation isn’t really about asking views and feedback to drive the development, or make fundamental changes. It’s about getting feedback on something you’ve decided to do to help the you deal with the reaction or response of the stakeholders affected. Most developers aren’t seeking permission as such.

Engagement is something much more involved, bringing the stakeholder into the process of decision making and the processes around it. This might occur where a very specific government fund has been granted for local improvements to a town centre, and part of the process is to give local residents (as obvious stakeholders) the opportunity to decide what specific improvements they want. This happens with some funds granted to local authorities by Transport for London/the Mayor of London.

When it comes to football clubs, it’s always wise to be careful what word we use to describe what we’re doing to ensure that we don’t end up creating misunderstandings, or raising expectations. But both can be vital parts of successful Fan Engagement, for all sorts of both strategic and practical projects and issues.

Let’s look at an issue such a ticketing.

It might be that for one reason or another, income is either down or revenue needs to be grown – e.g.: to increase the playing budget, or pay for some kind of additional piece of equipment for player training or the youth academy. It could be that the first step in a process means consulting (i.e.: gaining feedback) on the potential reaction of fans to price rises, or the sorts of levels of rises that might be needed. You could do this with your supporters’ trust/independent group. A supporters’ trust might itself have undertaken surveying on exactly this issue (a regular or one-off survey), as well as having connections into the fanbase that you wouldn’t. The second step in the process would be to refine the proposition, and begin to¬†engage with fans to test it.

This means you’re open as to what level of rises can be introduced, and you might even give fans specific outcomes according to each price rise (e.g.: increase the wage budget this much, and we would be around mid-table compared to other clubs’ budgets). You might do this via a survey, or focus groups, and you could carry out a two-step process of survey then focus group.

This illustrates the two elements we’re discussing here: consultation (to assess the impact on stakeholders of something you have decided to do); and engagement (to give stakeholders the chance to make a decision or decisions on what you’re intending to do)

Where consultation fails
A process often fails in these cases because it tends to be viewed as ‘arm twisting’ or as an attempt simply for one party (the club) to persuade the other (the fans) – even if it’s done for a good reason. What results is often a more defensive and combative position on the part of the club to deal with the fallout, with the potential damage to competence and reputation that invariably comes from that.

These kinds of incidents often lead to fans getting angry and suspicious. What’s worse is that choosing the wrong process can start to unpick the hard work done to build relations up in the first place.

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