When the end came for Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert, the coup de grace was delivered in traditional football style.
A bland statement announced the club had parted company with its manager, five months after awarding him a new contract (it didn’t mention the second bit) and continued: “The club would like to place on record its thanks to Paul and take this opportunity to wish him every success in the future”.
Two weeks before his dismissal, the club’s chief executive, Tom Fox, had given Lambert the equally traditional public vote of confidence, telling the BBC that sacking him would be like “flipping a coin”.
“When things aren’t going well, fans bay for that type of blood,” he said. “That’s not the way that I or the owner are going to make a decision. It’s a false narrative.
“Football’s a funny business and I think to put it all on the manager, again, that’s a bit of a false narrative”.
At the time, it was tempting to take Fox’s words at face value. Perhaps an American CEO, working for an American owner, really was going to do things differently. Funny game, or not, perhaps he was going to adhere to business practices more usually found outside football, where dispensing with a manager’s services 21 weeks after handing him a new contract might be considered an error of judgement rather than a show of strength.
Football, though, does not conform to the rules that govern most areas of business. In what other line of work, would a front-page editorial in the local paper call for a manager’s dismissal – as the Birmingham Mail did a few hours before Lambert’s sacking?
But that raises a couple of interesting questions. Should football be immune from the normal rules of PR that operate in all other areas of business? And are there lessons business leaders can learn from the way so many football clubs routinely mishandle their communications?
The answer to the first question is “No” and the answer to the second question is “Yes”.
Whatever your brand, whatever your business, trust and transparency are essential components of your communications strategy. If you publicly state that you are not about to sack your manager because you will not allow short-term results to compromise your long-term vision that is a clear, unambiguous statement of intent. It was refreshing to hear a CEO talk in those terms. But when, a fortnight later, you do precisely the opposite of what you have said you will do, negative headlines are inevitable.
For a second “How not to do it” PR lesson from the world of football, look no further than Brentford FC. The spotlight rarely shines on Griffin Park – the club hasn’t been in football’s top-flight since 1947 – but there has been a transformation in its fortunes under manager Mark Warburton, a former HSBC trader. Promoted from League One in 2014, the club is in contention for a place in the Premier League, football’s promised land.
So it was extraordinary to learn that the club was considering replacing Warburton at the end of the season, whether or not he won them promotion, and had even discussed the job with a little-known Spanish manager. The story broke in The Times, wrong-footing the club as dismayed fans vented their disbelief on social media.
The club’s response was to issue a statement so opaque that it is worth reproducing in full.
“Given Mark’s increasing profile within the game, we recognise that he will deservedly have turned the heads of other clubs. As with every other sensibly run club, we plan for various possible eventualities.
“We are a progressive club who do talk to other people within the game to learn about other ways of doing things, and to consider novel strategic approaches to the game. Those conversations continue internally and are part of a healthy dialogue.
“Football is sometimes called a village, and in any village, gossip and rumours can spread like wildfire, whether or not such rumours are true.
“It would not be in the club’s interests to disclose any of those discussions, but Brentford FC do want to confirm that Mark Warburton remains our manager. The team’s performance has been magnificent this season and that is primarily down to Mark’s leadership. Mark will continue to lead the club in its push for Premier League football.
“At this critical stage of the season, we don’t propose to make any further statements in relation to these rumours.”
There are so many things wrong with that statement it is difficult to know where to start. But the purpose of any communique is to communicate clearly and simply. That hardly does the job.
The club first appears to be suggesting it was engaging in nothing more than succession planning – a perfectly sensible precaution for any business. But it goes on to talk about “novel strategic approaches to the game”, giving credence to the version of events reported in The Times, which suggested club owner Matthew Benham did not think Warburton was innovative enough.
To then bemoan the spread of rumours, but implicitly admit they were true, and state only that the manager would remain in place for the duration of the season – again implicitly endorsing The Times story – before concluding with a refusal to discuss the matter further was bizarre in the extreme.
Trust? Transparency? They are notable only for their absence.
What the club’s manager thought of it, one could only guess. Needless to say, a few hours later Brentford lost a vital match to promotion rivals Watford before being thumped 3-0 by struggling Charlton in their next match.
Belatedly, the club then confirmed the story which it had cack-handedly tried to dismiss was indeed true: Warburton would be leaving at the end of the season. An own goal if ever there was one – and worth remembering as an example of how not to do corporate communications.