Has Mike Ashley listened to his PR team to avoid relegation in the business reputation stakes
Friday, May 29th, 2015
Own the conversation and gain fans rather than hatemail by engaging with the media.
TAKE IT from a dyed-in-the-wool member of the Toon Army; the 24th May 2015 was a momentous day for Newcastle United Football Club.
Most importantly the club secured its’ Premier League status and avoided what would have been the most humiliating end to a season on record.
But the date was also notable because the club’s much maligned multi-billionaire proprietor – whose face adorns dartboards and punch-bags across the Geordie nation – addressed the press for the first time in eight torrid years of his ownership.
As a fan I have been left bemused by the lack of ambition shown at my beloved club and the clear evidence that it is being used as a commercial vehicle for a pug-ugly brand to reach audiences on almost every nation on planet earth.
So as news of the Mike Ashley interview broke across the stadium before kick off, it left me thinking one thing – has he finally listened to his beleaguered PR advisers?
There is no doubting Ashley’s business acumen. As the hands-on chief of Sports Direct he has masterfully obliterated the competition, rising to a net worth in excess of that of Sir Richard Branson.
But I have been left gobsmacked by the countless seemingly soulless business-driven decisions taken by those at the helm of NUFC since Ashley’s initial takeover in 2007.
It is simply unbecoming for a grand old club to grab money from an unloved payday lender in exchange for having its branding slapped onto the famous black and white shirt, a shirt which is loved and worn to rags by kids who deserve better than to be billboards for Wonga plc.
To add insult to injury St James’ Park, which sits atop a hill in the heart of the city, often compared to a historic cathedral is now plastered with the trademark blue and red branding of Sports Direct.
As a PR professional, it is Mr Ashley’s lack of personal communication that I have found to be the most baffling aspect of his eight year tenure, as any good PR advisor would implore him to make his intentions clear.
Mike Ashley and his board of advisors have at times operated in a manner that is counterintuitive, perplexing and seemingly harmful – frequently citing a healthy balance sheet when all the fans were witnessing was on-the-pitch stagnation, a disdain for any cup and a disregard for tradition.
It is perfectly reasonable that Mike Ashley does have the best intentions for the club at heart (if not his heart, then definitely his wallet) as he benefits substantially through TV exposure and this would be amplified substantially should the club ever return to the dizzying heights of the Champions League.
If communication had been consistent and genuine throughout, I have no doubts that Ashley would be less of a hate figure in a city that lives and breathes football.
Following a spate of predictably negative coverage in the local paper, the Evening Chronicle and The Journal the club took the questionable decision to ban reporters from any conferences and from the training ground.
At our Scottish public relations agency, Holyrood PR in Edinburgh, we fully understand the importance of ‘owning the conversation’. The media, much like natures, abhors a vacuum. Silence breeds intrigue which eventually leads to confusion, anger, misinformation and unease if not addressed in the first instance.
Let’s hope that the future for Newcastle United is a more transparent one and that Mike Ashley will take on board the concepts of community engagement, support and transparency. Now is time for NUFC to embrace open dialogue and media engagement, reaching those die-hard fans.
If that’s the case, I’m sure no-one will be more relieved than fed-up Newcastle United supporters – perhaps with the exception of Mr Ashley’s beleaguered PR advisers.
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Chris Fairbairn is an Account Director with award-winning public relations agency Holyrood Partnership. He is part of an expert PR team delivering PR services to a wide range of clients from headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland.View Chris's Profile
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