Guardian Sports Friday 9th June 2006
Mark Borkowski: FA thinks its still 1966
It is arguably the hardest job in the world and it gets harder every time the World Cup finals come around. Even so, it is difficult to find a good word for the PR team at the FA
It is arguably the hardest job in the world and it gets harder every time the World Cup finals come around. Even so, it is difficult to find a good word for the PR team at the FA. True, they have a long history of bungling and incompetence to live up to. But, at a time when even the royal family seems to have worked out how to handle its image in the 21st century, it is still a mystery that at Soho Square it is always 1966. The problem, of course, is communication. It has ever been thus.
The problem is not the lack of communication but the surfeit of it. It is hard for the media to know whom to believe when players have their own PRs, clubs have their own PRs and managers – apart, weirdly, from Sven – have their own PRs. Information, misinformation and disinformation seep out in briefings and counter-briefings and no one seems to have a hand on the tiller.
Up front the FA plays David Davies, a former BBC sports hack whose workmanlike performances never inspire confidence; behind him, in the withdrawn role, Adrian Bevington fails to supply the ammunition for a decent attack. Nor are they mindful of their defensive duties. It was not their fault that Sven sneaked off for private assignations with Ulrika, Faria and Roman Abramovich. But they could have handled the fall-out better.
Then came the Scolari fiasco: rule one of big business is never to announce a signing until the ink is dry on the contract. Yet the FA was so desperate to be seen to be doing something – anything – to replace Sven that it cheerfully confirmed the stories that Luiz Felipe Scolari was on his way to England. Look, too, at why Scolari said no: everything that has happened since has reinforced his fears about press intrusion from our intrepid tabloid hacks.
It is fortunate for Sven’s and Nancy’s private life that Wayne’s metatarsal took over the back – and front – pages. Of course the FA bungled its role of controlling information about this too, in its blinkered obsession with bringing “good news” to the nation and an arrogance that it had control. Now comes the inevitable club v country row with Manchester United, which could have been kept out of the papers with a bit of communication and some careful management.
On Wednesday night, when United were about to release their statement, journalists seemingly had difficulty getting hold of the FA’s spokesman for a response – not clever. Even if cynics might say Sir Alex Ferguson, as a wily Scot, was not exactly unhappy to see England’s preparations in disarray, one would have expected the FA to present a united front with Rooney’s club. But no one seems to have thought of that.
The truth is that the FA does not know what it is doing. It has tried various strategies to improve relations, such as bringing in a journalist (Colin Gibson) under the illusion that the hacks would respect one of their own. But that unravelled with the ludicrous attempt to do a deal with the News of the World, trying to keep Sven’s dalliance with Faria Alam out of the paper in return for giving them Mark Palios. Of course the newspaper did what all good journalists would do and ran both stories.
In fact the next England manager, Steve McClaren, shows signs of being a bit savvier than his predecessor, having already hired his own PR man . . . Max Clifford, ironically the panto baddy that stalked Soho Square for years. In a fine example of getting your retaliation in first, that takes out the most likely recipient of any salacious gossip about his private life. Better to keep the master Max onside.
But it still has to improve its act at Soho Square. None of us expect it to be able to keep a bunch of millionaire players out of the headlines. But damage limitation is a vital part of PR – the vital part at the FA – and to handle it properly you need to have all the information at your fingertips, have personal relationships with all the relevant editors and journalists (sport and news). Most of all you need to have the power. The sad truth about the FA is that it has none of those three things.
Mark Borkowski is a media and PR commentator