This is a crisis the like of which most of us have never seen. Only a handful will have experienced anything comparable to it – the remainder of those who lived through some or all of World War Two or its aftermath, some elements of the 1970s financial crisis and the three-day-week, or those who have lived in parts of the world during times of war, civil unrest and martial law or similar health scares. And make no mistake: The real tragedy is the loss of human life that we’re seeing, with the loss of actual football matches in themselves a mere detail in a sub-plot. Yes, the closure of clubs as businesses is a problem for all the reasons the closure of other business is a problem: potential job losses and the withdrawal of services provided by clubs or their charitable arms. However, as all non-essential businesses have now been ordered closed, football is therefore non-essential too – even if, as Gary Neville says, it brings much needed relief to people.
Despite talk of the season restarting soon after the 30th April, EFL chairman Rick Parry has been quoted on BBC Radio Five Live saying the idea that “the current season would finish in July and the next one start as planned in August was ‘wishful thinking.'” So what about Fan Engagement, for however long this crisis lasts (not just restrictions on movement)? And why on earth think about something so trivial during such a time?
Although many clubs operations and many of their staff are now, in the favoured word of the moment, ‘furloughed’, a lot are still operating in some sense, mainly because of football’s propensity to do good – Jose Mourinho delivering food parcels to vulnerable and elderly people represents a particularly beautiful example. Countless other clubs are doing amazing things too, such as Stevenage, whose owner and Chairman Phil Wallace, saying about the club’s role, “We have always prided ourselves on being a community club and now it’s time to show what that means.” Everton’s CEO Professor Denise Barrett-Baxendale, has even become part of a national business group to advise on how to get communities through the crisis. Clubs should be naturally good community institutions, a role they have increasingly appreciated over recent years.
But what on earth do you do when you’ve got no matches on, and little to do in terms of the day-to-day relationship with fans (as opposed to the wider ‘community’)? You can’t meet them either, given the severe, blanket restrictions now in place to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, meaning that meetings of more than two people are now banned. What does Fan Engagement look like in the middle of a public health crisis where what has become a limited relationship required between fans and club at that time can only be managed at arms-length? And what good will it do anyway?
“Expectations might need to be managed before the big decisions are made [about completing the season or not], and if the big decisions aren’t what clubs or fans want them to be, having some credit in the bank will help when you need to communicate that.”
First of all, fans will not, and should not expect, regular communications from even the biggest clubs. Some, like Forest Green Rovers have indicated today, simply don’t have the resources and will maintain a skeleton operation. People’s lives are being turned upside-down, including those at clubs. Even where remote working is possible (e.g.: for communications teams), those running the operation (including agencies or freelancers providing external comms support) will have competing demands (e.g.: Marcomms, community support, key health messaging). On a very practical level they might need to home-school their kids, look after elderly or vulnerable relatives who need support and care. Some might even have the virus themselves, or be in a household in isolation because a family member or housemate has.
If you’re going to do something, here’s where two-way Twitter channels (see the Fan Engagement Index), are a fairly simple way of maintaining actual contact with fans, and bypassing the busy main club channels. Main club social media channels are normally busy pushing Marcomms content anyway, but at the moment in some cases, equally if not more so: classic match reruns, competitions – even videos to followers explaining how to wash their hands properly. All of this content is important, and valuable for the business to be able to maintain contact with fans, but it doesn’t cover every need, and a lot of it isn’t two-way. If you’re thinking about introducing a Twitter channel for Fan Engagement to field and answer questions (even if you only do them at a fixed point in the week) this might be a good opportunity.
In more general terms, content is king. A weekly update from the CEO, management or ownership team or club chair might be a good idea. Most, including Accrington, Porstmouth, Arsenal and many other clubs, have issued updates around the time that football was first suspended a couple of weeks ago, as well as when the extended date was announced last week. It might be a good idea to squeeze in a similar update on weekly or fortnightly basis, just to keep the wheels turning.
“Your supporters’ trust or independent supporters’ group…could help you to come up with messaging that works, and even help distribute it more effectively.”
We should highlight the issue that will be coming fast down the track too; the season might never actually finish, or if it does, fans won’t be there as matches will have to be played behind closed-doors. Expectations might need to be managed before the big decisions are made, and if the big decisions aren’t what clubs or fans want them to be, having some credit in the bank because you stayed in touch with them will help when you need to communicate that.
It’s also worth turning to that good relationship with your supporters’ trust or independent supporters’ group. They could help you to come up with messaging that works for fans, and even help distribute it more effectively. This is especially important given the point about Marcomms output and the pressure on your main channels at this time.
Good Fan Engagement – good stakeholder engagement in fact – isn’t just for the times when things are ok. Resources in a crisis notwithstanding, it needs to be done all the time, in all weathers. It needs to be bound into your club as part of your purpose – not as a layer over the top like a freshly greenwashed BP
Think of it as like you’re popping round and saying hello to your fans, as you might have a regular call to your friends or family. Add this update to your regular email as well, and if you can, ask if fan groups can include it too. Try the Twitter channel: if you can, chat to your fans, find out how they are, be human. People respond well to that, especially when they’re stuck indoors with the same faces all day for weeks on end. Many of them will want to hear from you.
- Good Marcomms output isn’t necessarily good Fan Engagement: During this crisis, by all means keep fans entertained, provide content, encourage them to spend, but remember that they still need to feel they have a relationship with their club
- Communicate predictably, if not regularly: Don’t worry so much about having interesting content, or even providing a video message. Just be predictable. Make it a little update about what players are up to, that you as a club are thinking of your fans, that they’re important. Some of them will be key workers risking their lives – NHS staff, social workers, delivery and postal workers, teachers, etc, and remember that most of them will be a combination of isolated or at least under the very restricted movement regime that has just been introduced.
- Think about what happens when the big decisions get made: At some point, the season will either be cancelled, or completed. That’s just a fact. You’re going to need to have goodwill, as it’s pretty likely as things stand, that difficult financial or personnel decisions on or off the pitch are going to have to be taken too. We’re in a period of uncertainty that won’t cease when some sense of normality returns – whenever that is. The impacts will be felt for many months – possibly years – to come.