Planet Football and PR is a mixed bag
Press officers, communications executives, PR chiefs. Call them what you want – and I can think of any number of expletive-ridden descriptions – but every football club, from the biggest in the land to the humblest semi-professional outfit, will have a person or persons responsible for “looking after” the media.
The lower down the league pyramid you go, the better the “looking after” process usually is. Smaller clubs are often starved of the oxygen of publicity, apart from on a local basis, and, should a scribe from a national newspaper come a-knocking, they are more than delighted to assist you.
The FA Cup is a favourite of mine, when you can unearth all kinds of colourful stories, especially in the early rounds when the non-league minnows are still in the competition. The friendly PR will guide you, reveal which of his players have fascinating full-time jobs, give you their phone numbers … and the job’s as good as done.
I once discovered a player who was a rat-catcher working in the sewers of London. Great tale, great copy: the cliched “Magic of the Cup”, indeed. All of which helped the club to gain a higher profile, if only for a day or two, and gave the PR guy a bit of kudos with his peers for facilitating the story in the first place. Win-win for everyone.
In Leagues One and Two, it is frequently similar. You might come across the occasional tosspot, who thinks he’s God’s gift to PRs and will pompously make you feel as if he’s doing you the biggest of favours – and even then say “No” to your polite request – but, in general, they are a decent bunch. Again, they have the club at heart.
And to be fair, if they can’t help you, some of it is due to them being hamstrung by a policy within the club that makes them report every Press enquiry, however harmless, to boardroom level. This not only slows down the process but also means that final decisions may be made ultimately by people higher up who have no comprehension of how the media operates and no empathy with them, anyway.
Move on into the Championship and the Press-PR relationship can become strained. Some Championship clubs are Billy Bigtime, just waiting to return to their “rightful” place in the Premier League. As are their Heads of Communication, an odious bunch who seemingly go out of their way to obstruct the hacks from trying to do their jobs.
Attempt to talk to a player, even in areas that you are allowed to be in, and the paranoid HoC will suddenly stick his dictaphone in front of the interviewee, showing a complete lack of trust in the interviewer. Ask a question, slightly leading in the “wrong direction”, and said HoC will advise the player to ignore it … or, at times, even call an abrupt halt to the conversation.
Needless to say, should this happen, the hacks will bristle with indignation. And it will more than likely lead to a touch of “twirl” in the subsequent article. So, because of the brusque intervention of the HoC, he has turned a probably benign story into a “Player X hits out at manager” shock-horror exclusive. When, really, that wasn’t what was said or meant.
I don’t necessarily condone this but that is the law of the jungle. And will the thick-skinned HoC learn from that experience? Most certainly not. He will continue to exist in his own little self-important bubble, treating the Press with a disdain that most of them do not deserve.
Move on into the Premier League and, wow, you’re up in the stratosphere. The seriously Billy Bigtime clubs now have huge PR teams, especially since the arrival of websites, podcasts, digi-this and digi-that, and it is an achievement just to get to speak to the person you need to. HoCs are often immersed in the corporate image of the club, too, so will perhaps delegate an inexperienced minion to deal with your interview idea. Not ideal.
At this level, the international media also have to be catered for. And believe me, for example, whenever a Japanese or South Korean player joins a Premier club, the Asian Press pack will go bonkers for access to him. In an absolutely respectful manner, of course – that is their way – but the linguistic barriers can prove difficult to overcome. Tell a Korean hack, who has two pages to fill, that he can’t chat with the latest Seoul superstar and a diplomatic incident might not be far away.
Most PRs and HoCs are male. Some good, some bad, some ugly. But there is a fair smattering of the fairer sex in such elevated positions also and, in my experience, they can be pretty tough cookies, too. OK, the usual rumours of their rather-closer-than-should-be relationships with various players always abound. Some with substance, some not. It’s par for the course in a testosterone-enlivened enviroment.
But most of the girls can cut it with the Press guys, even when confronted by lurid suggestions on alcohol-fuelled nights out on the “Boys on Tour” trips abroad. And I’ve seen them reduce a lusty and lairy lad in full flow to rubble with a well-placed put-down. Priceless!
Press officers, communications executives, PR chiefs. Control freaks, corporate lackies, jumped-up nobodies. As in any walk of life. But there are good guys and gals among them, too. Those that consider their club before self, those that respect the role of the Press, those that value the price of good publicity.
All of them, excellent or otherwise, an integral part of the world that is Planet Football.