Just like any company, football teams are entities that want to project a positive brand image.
How did the England football team transform itself from an object of national apathy and embarrassment to one of national pride and interest – even for non-football fans?
It’s a curious mix of good social media management, press communications and, of course, predominantly, good results. Let’s take a quick look and discover how England won back our hearts.
A meticulous communication strategy
“Nice to hear your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is… for fuck’s sake.”
Wayne Rooney following England’s goalless draw to Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.
It’s been often commented that this crop of players are more ‘likeable’ than previous squads. But could it be that the previous sets of players were not unappealing individuals, instead they didn’t properly wield the power of social media and strategic communication?
For some, Wayne Rooney’s notorious, impromptu aside to camera during the 2010 World Cup epitomises the ridiculed England of old. What it betrayed, too, was a lack of care for a communication strategy with fans.
This time, England’s social feeds made sure to create highly shareable content that gave followers a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look into England’s daily routine and activities from their training camp in Russia, or at games. This was part of the FA’s strategy for increasing fan engagement.
The FA ran a mini-series of videos – Lions’ Den – which included video content as the players chronicled their time in Russia. This was in addition to the plethora of other content, aimed at giving fans access to players’ day-to-day activities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
— England (@England) July 8, 2018
Before and during the tournament, press event and interview followed interview and press event. The focus was on doing away with the image of inaccessible, over-hyped megastars, instead projecting a more down-to-earth, likeable image.
This squad was cast as a set of players with no concern for money, WAGs or fame – but just a bunch away from their families and friends to chase their footballing dreams. This seemed to be epitomised by a press event where Danny Rose opened up about his depression diagnosis to several national newspapers.
This new approach represents a departure from the iron grip the FA previously enjoyed over player access. For once, as PR Week put it, ‘the team has enjoyed a positive relationship with media’. Could this have helped the players feel more comfortable on the pitch? As England’s penalties cruised confidently past David Ospina in the nerve-jangling shootout, it seemed so.
V enjoyable day at St George’s Park. A revolutionary one in terms of openness. All 23 England players available for interview in the futsal hall for 45 minutes. Felt a bit like speed dating! Congrats to FA press team for organising it and Gareth Southgate for embracing it. — John Cross (@johncrossmirror) June 5, 2018
Thanks to this new ethos, players were more open in their interactions, helping them win over legions of new fans. They were even creating their own viral content.
“Can you ask the neighbours to put the bins out on Monday? We’re not going home just yet” pic.twitter.com/s1g3P3jj34
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) July 8, 2018
A media masterclass from Southgate
No-one can dispute that manager Southgate stepped off the plane in England after a World Cup that heightened perceptions of his managerial ability among fans, pundits and players beyond all measure.
There’s no doubt that Harrogate’s-own Southgate is, simply, a genuinely nice man. A true Yorkshire gentleman.
This was evident as he consoled Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after their penalty shootout defeat. It would take a true cynic to suggest he did this for any reasons other than compassion and empathy – after all, he was on the receiving end of shootout heartache at Euro ‘96. This act of humanity proliferated social media networks and contributes to why, in the words of The Guardian, ‘the nation fell for Gareth Southgate’.
Although a fairly minor episode in the grander show, this is an instance of good PR that sharply contrasts with the ignominious tenure of his predecessor, Sam Allardyce; finally, England had a leader who represented integrity, honesty and magnanimity.
But there’s another aspect to Southgate – and that’s his calculated media strategy. Much like the press events involving squad players, Gareth brought the media onside like never before and projected a respectable and affable persona whilst successfully managing expectations.
Usually a favoured target for headline potshots, for once England players and their manager were feeling the warmth of favourable headlines from tabloids to broadsheets alike.
… and good football.
Of course, had England crashed out at the group stage following a handful of abject performances against relative footballing minnows (Iceland, Euro 2016, anyone?), nobody would be raving about the team, irrespective of the slickness of their communication and marketing efforts.
So there’s no downplaying the importance of Southgate’s tactical astuteness and his players’ efforts here. Southgate instilled a more distinctive playing style in the team, helped along the way by a rather fortunate draw that opened up in front of them. Oh, and a penchant for set pieces.
From a pitifully low ebb to ‘national heroes’; there’s no debate about the transformation in public perception of the England team. The power of a well-executed 3-5-2 formation, or the effect of properly-managed communications? Probably more the former – but the latter helps too, and may have had more effect that we give it credit.
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