The Inside Track – Football & The Media – 26/2/16

Peter Lumley has been a regular contributor to this column recently and his razor sharp reminiscences of over seventy years of watching the Bees are always welcome and of great interest.

Today he has used the knowledge gained from his professional experience of being a local journalist covering the club and then a public relations practitioner to provide his viewpoint on Brentford’s current PR stance and approach.

Peter, as always, holds strong opinions and trenchant views, and it is perfectly obvious that there is much that has happened at the club over the last twelve traumatic months that has certainly not been to his liking and which has left him feeling angry, concerned and confused.

There has been much debate recently regarding Brentford’s expertise (or lack of it) in communicating with various media outlets – newspapers, radio, television and social media in general. It is a subject that is close to my heart in that I have had the privilege of working on both sides of the fence, so to speak.

My first job on leaving school at the age of sixteen was to join the Middlesex County Times at Ealing as a trainee cub reporter with a special interest in sport. At that age I had already been a Griffin Park regular for six years since my first visit in 1942.

I should point out that the newspaper had a weekly circulation of over fifty thousand copies and covered an area embracing Ealing, West Ealing, Hanwell, Greenford and Northolt – a very fertile catchment area for Brentford fans at a time when the club encountered so many severe financial problems.

One of my primary objectives was to help the club by trying to expand the coverage and gain greater support. I also wrote a weekly column covering a range of local sports activities – similar to a blog in modern parlance. One regular feature of that column was references to Brentford of which at least ninety percent could fairly be described as more than favourable or positive.

Among my many sources of information were a number of players with whom I formed a friendship and who were always interested in what I had written about their performances and those of their team mates. And I can honestly claim that I never betrayed a confidence nor did I compromise their relationship with Griffin Park officials.

For all these reasons I looked forward to establishing a close working relationship with senior club officials to share in a common cause. But subsequent events proved otherwise. There were two local newspaper rivals at that time. One was the iconic George Sands, of the “Middlesex Chronicle” a lifelong bachelor who devoted much of his life to Brentford and covered every Bees game, home and away for season after season. The other was Ernie Gifford, of the “Brentford and Chiswick Times”. Both gave the impression that they watched Brentford through red-and-white tinted spectacles.

This quite naturally endeared them to the Brentford management, particularly the club’s General Secretary, the late Denis Piggott, who was also General Manager/Secretary for a brief period. And it was this fact that led me into my first confrontation with club officialdom. Regularly on Thursday mornings I phoned Mr. Piggott to try and glean any information of potential interest to my readers before going to press later on in the day.

Invariably Mr. Piggott was less than enthusiastic about giving any information away even though he was well aware that my intention was to try and whip up interest among potential supporters for the next match.

Mr. Piggott seemed much more interested in complaining about any criticisms I had levelled against Brentford performances in the previous week’s edition. The fact that I had significantly extended the coverage of Brentford games went utterly unappreciated.

On one very memorable occasion, when I had written an article that club officials took particular exception to, I walked across the Braemar Road forecourt to be confronted by the then manager, Malcolm MacDonald, who threatened to punch me on the nose if I ever repeated the perceived offence.

And my alleged criticism that caused so much consternation would look like praise compared to some of Greville’s critiques of recent Brentford performances, particularly the one at Brighton!

But one Brentford Official who did appreciate the extra coverage given to the Bees, warts and all, was the late, great, Eric White who for a number of years acted as the club’s Press Officer. We became firm friends right up until his sudden and untimely death.

Another was no less than Mr. Jack Dunnett, who as Club Chairman invited me and other journalists to his luxury home for a pre-Christmas party for players and club officials. Mr. Dunnett was later to become a villain among Griffin Park fans as he prepared to sanction a takeover by West London arch rivals, Queens Park Rangers.

Fortunately the club was saved from extinction by another wealthy benefactor, Mr. Ron Blindell who succeeded Mr. Dunnett as Club Chairman. Mr. Dunnett later moved to Nottingham on becoming their Member of Parliament.

My years covering Brentford games spanned the years 1948/64. It was a period that produced an exciting but nerve-racking roller coaster of a ride but was also dramatically newsworthy for a young local journalist.

1) There were two relegations from the Second Division to the Fourth and promotion back to the Third.

2) The retirement of that great manager, Mr. Harry Curtis, who in the pre-war days took Brentford from the Third Division to the First.

3) England international Leslie Smith, hero of Brentford’s two-nil victory over Portsmouth in the London War Cup Final at Wembley in 1942, returned to Griffin Park for a short spell on being released by Aston Villa.

4) Perhaps my favourite player of all time, Ken Coote, completed more than 500 appearances for the club.

5) The defection of two of the stars of that wonderful half-back line of Tony Harper, Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill.

6) The great Tommy Lawton was Player/Manager for a brief period.

7) The skill and artistry of wonderful players like Johnny Brooks, Peter McKennan, Johnny Rainford, Dai Ward and John Dick.

8) Starlets Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Bloomfield, plus the Terrible Twins Jim Towers and George Francis, who were both so deadly in front of goal were all transferred, much to the dismay of every Griffin Park fan. How we could do with two strikers of their calibre today?

All these events – good and bad – were the subject of detailed analyses in my reports and personal weekly column. But it was my reporting of the various setbacks that befell the club that caused me the greatest heartache in terms of my relationship with the club’s management who appeared to perceive any criticism in a local paper as an act of disloyalty.

As an aside, it was my experience as a journalist that led me to encourage a school friend of one of my stepsons to follow his dream of becoming a sports journalist. He is none other than Neil Ashton, the Daily Mail’s brilliant award winning soccer correspondent, who also has his own regular Sunday morning slot on Sky TV.

Back to the debate on how the club should handle criticism from the Press.

A number of contributors urge the club to hire the services of a professional PR practitioner with the specific responsibility to improve the image of Brentford among the various Press outlets and to the UK football community at large.

I take a contrary view based on my experience spanning some twenty years of working for an organisation that represented multi-national companies in an industry that has been regularly been under the media spotlight and has been the target of much criticism – the pharmaceutical industry.

I make these points to put into some sort of perspective the demands placed on such organisations to represent themselves to the press in the same way that football clubs, in general and Brentford in particular seek to influence media and public opinion.

My experiences convinced me that while PR practitioners have a role to play in routine press relations activities, organisations should always seek to rely on a chief or senior executive to step up to the plate and appear on television or radio to put the case on behalf of their club or company. They will always command more authority and credibility than is possible with a slick smooth-talking PR man or woman.

A good example of this was when Brentford’s joint Co-Director of Football, Phil Giles, gave an interview to explain the club’s position on bringing in new players (or not!) during the recent January transfer window.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed with me but, on balance, I believe his contribution was appreciated by a majority of those who saw it.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a particular hobby horse of mine. I fully appreciate that benevolent club owner, Matthew Benham, has always pursued a policy of staying out of the limelight so far as his role is concerned. And, of course, no one should criticise him for that. It is clearly his right to do so.

But I sincerely believe that the so-called “sacking” of Mark Warburton just over a year ago was so controversial that it demanded a much more forthright explanation than was offered at the time by the club chairman on behalf of the owner. And who better to give that explanation to the media, and to thousands of loyal but baffled supporters, like myself, than the man who was the driving force behind the intended change of direction?

With the benefit of hindsight I hope he might be persuaded to give an update on what he, and members of the Board of Directors, believe has been achieved in the last twelve months towards the stated aim of improving the recruitment of better players and coaches.

Another Fans’ Forum could certainly provide an appropriate platform!

Thank you, Peter, for your fascinating insight into the paternalistic way in which football clubs viewed their local paper and the cosy relationship that existed far too often between them.

As for his suggestion and exhortation for better, more open and regular communication between club and supporters, I really do not see how anybody can disagree with him.

From my perspective I always feel that it is fascinating and instructive to hear it from the horse’s mouth from club officials as well as the players, past and present when they are contributing to Bees Player, and it is always illuminating to be made privy to the inside track on what is really going on in and around the club and to how footballers think.

What does everybody else have to say on this subject which is totally relevant given the current circumstances?

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7 thoughts on “The Inside Track – Football & The Media – 26/2/16

  1. An interesting article but Peter misses the point when he discusses the contribution that a professional PR practitioner can make. He is correct in saying that there is no one better than a Club official to be in the spotlight at difficult times but the specialist PR practitioner’s skill comes in preparing and coaching that person. It’s called Crisis Management and our record in such situations is not great if we are to be honest. We have had spokesmen who did not come across well in the face of media questioning and if they are deemed to be responsible for briefing journalists, they should undergo media training as part of their normal duties and not be thrown to the wolves in a crisis.

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  2. Like Peter Lumley, I too undertook PR for an industry that has never enjoyed ‘flavour of the month’ status: financial services.
    One of our golden rules was to offer a well briefed, senior executive to field media enquires and tv/ radio interviews whenever an issue looked like getting out of control. Our thinking was that if we didn’t give our point of view, others would do it for us, either inaccurately or in negative terms. Hiding and hoping bad stuff goes away doesn’t work. I’m not advocating that every detail of a player’s contract or a transfer deal, or the disciplinary procedures need be disclosed but if someone gives a timely explanation of why a decision has been taken, why more information can’t be disclosed and what happens next, it helps cool things down. In these days of agents, sub-agents, social media and 24 hour news it’s harder than ever, but I repeat, hiding and hoping for the best, ain’t the best way.

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  3. Well i remember when just before my league debut against lincoln city in Febuary1974 i was told by my manger at the time on tuesday i would be playing but it would not known and i was not to talk to any papers before Brentford annonced it friday afternoon and even then not to talk to any local or National papers whatever even thou lots of media telephoned at my home.I do think commucation now is very importent between clubs and the media and now with twitter facebook ect every is known. Here in France we have had the last couple weeks a big media problem with Paris St germain because of a twit by one of there players slating the manager and some players. .I think at BFC PR could do much better than its done just to now.

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  4. This is spot on Greville, so thanks, and an area where we really need to improve. The problem with PR, like marketing in general, is that everybody has a different idea of what it is. If Brentford were to hire a spin doctor like the politicians do, it would be a disaster and severely damage the club’s credibility. However, if the role is to maintain and grow the relationship with the fans by giving them a greater understanding of what is going on, then that would be fine.

    The role is, as stated already here by others, stay as close as possible to the fans to find out their concerns (most important), support the club’s long-term relationships (we are quite good at this), tell it like it is, help the management and players of the club to improve their communications (remove the fear). As Peter has clearly described, after our history, we are the committed ones, but if we are going to fill a new stadium, I would think it is essential.

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  5. Generally agree with Peter’s comments although I do feel that we have regular updates from the “Management” team and the Fans forums are regular and open. My one disagreement is over Mathew Benham. I am happy that he wants to stay in the background and would compare him with Abramovich just 5 miles up the road who has not made one public pronouncement in his entire reign at Chelsea. Indeed you hear very little from the majority of owners, the exceptions being largely loose cannons like Tan, Cellini & McAnthony. Indeed our noisy neighbour Tony got himself into big trouble by commenting on Rangers hunt for yet another new manager last year. Maybe, on reflection, MB should be a little bit more like Steve Gibson at Boro – sit largely in the background but remain approachable.

    One place I would like to hear more from though is our Chairman and CEO. A few short platitudes in the program is not sufficient. For example, we were told last autumn that court decision on the CPO for Lionel Road would be made before the end of 2015 – two months later we have still heard nothing. It is interesting to see Rasmus appearing on TV and the main man in front of the presss as the FCM Chairman in the same way that Greg Dyke did. But we see little or nothing of the Brentford Chairman these days.

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  6. A short dissertation on he development of communication over the past decades might be of help. Back in the day ‘journalists’ were mostly ‘reporters’ who told us ‘who, what, where and when’. Then, in the 60s, we started to see reporters given other titles and interpreting the news rather than just giving the simple facts.
    Those of us that moved from newspapers into the communication business in the 70s countered with the invention of spin to shape that reporting. Some did not follow the trend. I remember one large retailer’s Head of PR telling us in the 80s that they ‘did not believe in PR’ and we stopped pursuing them as a client. A few weeks later they were cut to ribbons in an article which claimed that their new store programme had damaged the Northern Ireland economy more than the IRA.
    By the 90s most people were so used to spin that when Joe Public was interviewed he sounded just like the chief executive who we used to rehearse in the 70s. At that time the communicators became powerful in the mainstream of a business. I advised one major corporation that was having a bad Press with one of its products. I was asked what should be done, no doubt being expected to come up with some magic PR programme that would make the awful product acceptable. After all they had invested huge amounts of money including several specially built tankers. My advice was to drop the product. Which they did.
    Since then we have seen even Government policy fashioned by what was in last week’s papers. But no doubt that will change when an ex PR man is no longer Prime minister.
    Some organizations took a different route and went silent. Which worked as well as anything else in mature companies. Of course the up-and-coming ones rightly still go for all the publicity they can get.
    Today the communication business has gone so far up its own alimentary canal that I honestly don’t understand much of it. They have lost the real purpose of communication and the ability to explain things, rather burying it all in jargon. I sometimes am sent communication job ads (a total waste of time) and I don’t even understand the ads.
    What has all this got to do with football and Brentford? Well, it’s not difficult to see that BFC communication, other than things like team news and match reports, is not well regarded, to put it mildly.
    Does it matter? Well, if we are ambitious enough to spend large amounts on players and facilities, then it will need a proportionate efforts in other spheres, especially comms, to double the fan base in order to become sustainable in Lionel Road. Lots to be done there for some very clever comms people (not jargonizing interns).
    Perhaps a start should be a Mr Brentford – a face and voice with credibility. We had it at times with Greg Dyke and with Mark Warburton, but it’s not a job for most people. Mr Brentford should be more than just a figure head – he should drive the ambition.
    Also recognize that the future is not people like us – it’s a whole new generation out there waiting.

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  7. Interesting subject today – very nice blog Peter. This and the insightful comments that follow have opened my eyes a little and genuinely made me think. The general consensus is that BFC needs to do better to reach both current an potential fans – especially on the big media issues. The level of communication and information related to matches, tickets etc is very good and has improved with our raised profile. Credit to all those involved.

    Personally I don’t mind who takes the lead on the bigger issues, this and I fully understand that MB may prefer not to, I just feel it needs doing and that we need a key person as a focal point – from what I’ve seen Mark Devlin is very capable and could take this on. After hearing the chairman describe non season ticket holders as “the prawn sandwich brigade” on a beesotted podcast recently, I don’t think he’s our man.

    Just over 1 year ago we were found wanting when a big story broke, it wasn’t well handled, and we’ve continued to struggle since. I think the media interest increases massively as a team rises through the leagues, as we transition to the new new stadium and try to push towards the next level it will only grow further. Potential new signings see a lot of media stuff too, for me there is nothing to lose in BFC trying to manage communications and top level stuff in a better way.

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