HOW ENGLAND MANAGE THE MEDIA
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
THE DEMANDS of the football-covering media in England are greater than anywhere else in the world.
No other country has as many national daily or Sunday newspapers. Distribution in Spain, France, Germany or Italy would be impossible because of the size of those countries. So, on the continent, major cities tend to be served by one or two locally-based newspapers.
In England, the nine daily newspapers and 10 Sundays create an enormous rivalry, with sports desks wanting a strong news story for the back — ideally an exclusive — particularly when the national team are playing.
Abroad coaches, both at club and national level, usually have one press conference for all media outlets…radio, television, agencies and newspapers. In England, apart from the initial open press conference for everyone which is television-driven, there are then separate conferences for radio, agencies, daily newspapers and the Sundays.
I once attended the signing of a new player when the reporter from the local hospital radio asked Martin O’Neill for a one-on-one because “we have our own listeners, too.”
Every section of the media, particularly the written press, wants — needs — quotes others don’t have.
Adrian Bevington, now managing director of Club England, celebrates 15 years with the Football Association in November after initially joining them as media officer.
According to Bevington, the demands posed by the different and competing media outlets is: “one of the greatest challenges for us, particularly in tournament mode.”
He said: “It can be time consuming for the manager to do one all-in press conference, then the radio guys will want their interviews asking their questions, then you have the daily and Sunday briefings. At tournaments there is also a UEFA or FIFA TV interview. All this can last a couple of hours and because the manager has to be on his mettle it is quite intense. Also, inevitably there is a lot of repetition with the questioning.
“It’s a very different operational style to most other countries but it is part of how we operate. What started out as a press conference followed by a briefing for the chief football correspondents and chief sports writers now involves a briefing for the number two and three football writers on newspapers, too.
“At tournaments, the evening before a match we have a press conference with the manager and a player, usually the captain. After that the chief football writers want their 15 minutes with the manager to get their own angle for the next day’s papers which has not been out on the wires.
“We often have to scurry around in the stadium finding a room somewhere to hold this briefing, away from the other media outlets.”
In the search for back- or front-page lead stories the questioning can often be intense, bordering on hostile. So that necessitates some preparation for the England manager.
Bevington said: “What we do is not scripted but we have a good chat with the manager for half an hour over a cup of tea before the press conference to prepare for the sort of questions that might be asked. We do also try to work on holding something back for daily and Sunday papers’ conference where possible.
“I’ll never lose sight of how important an element of the job the media are. I’ve sat down with Roy Hodgson and all our managers for long periods to make sure press conferences are prepared for properly. Likewise we try to help the players where possible and we try to be aware of the ad hoc pitfalls that may come our way.”
But the best laid plans can occasionally end with the sort of quote that the media love but which has the FA’s communications team bracing itself for unwanted headlines. Two sprang to Bevington’s mind.
“When Howard Wilkinson was caretaker-manager of England in 2000, he said we might as well forget out the 2002 World Cup in Japan and concentrate on the World Cup in Germany four years later. That was a big statement for a manager.
“Steve McClaren, who had endured a torrid time from certain elements of the media, after giving his initial thoughts on the game against Andorra in Barcelona said: ‘You can write what you like now’ and walked out.
“All the managers I’ve known have tried to work with the media. Steve took more abuse than any manager but he dealt with the media well in that he never closed down and worked within the framework we set out. Fabio Capello came from a different culture and the concept of radio, dailies and Sundays press conferences was new to him but he went with it. Sven was very phlegmatic in dealing with the media and it’s been good to see how he developed a healthy respect over a longer period of time with the UK media. In reality all the managers have tried in their own way to work with the media.”
THE PRESSURE on the written media to produce original quotes is intense and the introduction of Sky Sports News in October, 1998 made the life of football writers far more demanding. While SSN is ideal for keeping up to date with who is saying what, all sports desks have the channel on and if a reporter files a “nanny” (nanny-goat = quote) from a manger or player that has been broadcast, the chances are he will receive a call to the effect: “Old news, chum, sorry…we’ve heard that.”
Bevington is aware of this and said: “When I joined the FA’s media team the press pack was growing but it seemed to kick-on during the period when England were away from Wembley, on the road, when Sven was manager at the start of the last decade. One of the most significant moments was the launch of Sky Sports News soon after the World Cup in France. Until then we’d never had a 24-hour rolling sports news channel.
“This had an impact on how the newspapers worked. While it’s a fantastic platform for live sports news it meant football writers had to seek stories that would hold until the next morning. “
THE GOOD news for Adrian Bevington was that six months after joining the Football Association’s media team he was off to a World Cup. The bad news was that France 98 and then Euro 2000 saw a return of hooliganism that prompted UEFA to threaten to send England home from the latter tournament.
Those dark days have thankfully gone and while the FA would never become complacent about trouble-makers, England travel to Ukraine and Poland for Euro 2012 confident the excesses of the recent past will not be repeated.
Bevington said: “My early days were tainted by the disorder we saw in Marseille while there were some incidents with our clubs in Europe, too. The nadir was Euro 2000 and we were all on what was called hoolie-watch. It was not an enjoyable experience and we came as near as we have ever been to being excluded.
“Thankfully, the legislation that came in during the September of that year started the sea-change that followed. The next two tournaments, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea and Euro 2004 in Portugal, saw hardly any arrests among the England fans who travelled.”
The Football (Disorder) Act 2000 meant that those convicted of football-related offences had to surrender their passports to prevent them attending overseas matches.
Bevington said: “There will be fewer fans travelling to Euro 2012 but we’ll do all we can to support them and provide them with as much information as possible. It’s a very different environment now to just over a decade ago.”
One constant is the inevitable criticism when England under-perform but Bevington says: “Criticism of performance, tactics, team selection etc are undoubtedly part of the territory. We all accept this. However, once it gets personal and mocking of managers and players I think it crosses the line. This is generally headlines and imagery and I know this is also a frustration to the writers. This is the side of the job which causes me most difficulty. They all have families and vitriol and humiliation should not be taken as par for the course.
Bevington accepts that headlines about a turnip, the wally with the brolly and in the name of Allah go “come with the territory.”
He said: “Everyone around the England structure understands that. When England play it is not like we are a leading club side with other clubs playing that day, we are the main story generally across all the media space.
“However, what we have to do, and hopefully we can improve, is to create an environment the players really do, genuinely enjoy coming to. We want to remove the intensity of the pressure around the set-up so while still highly professional, it’s also fun.”
There will once again be a ban on ghosted columns by players (or coaches) during the European Championship, though the FA will not ban Twitter.
Bevington said: “Only a few players Tweet and we’ll manage this sensibly. It’s not so much a case of rules, more regulations as guidance and common sense.
“We’ll be in a city centre environment in this tournament and that brings a whole different dynamic. The use of social media is still relatively new – I don’t believe we had players on Twitter at the last World Cup, and when I started here even the internet was still, in many ways, in its infancy. That’s how much the situation has changed.”
Another challenge for Bevington is to remain close to the journalists who cover England while not revealing the secrets football writers crave. He said: “Things have changed a little since I became Club England managing director. It’s very much a management role and I’ve had to have a little more distance from the journalists than I had previously. I still like to think that I can enjoy socialising with them when we’re on tour. What I don’t have any more is the day-to-day involvement. There are people within the FA’s communications department who are excellent to deal with football writers.
“I enjoy the journalists’ company. The minute that we close our ears to what the media are saying we’re in trouble. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them or act as the media are telling us to do so but we have to understand what opinions are out there and make our judgment calls with that knowledge.”
A myth among certain elements of supporters is that the media want England to lose because it makes for sensational headlines. Wrong. Football writers would much rather report on a successful England because, as we have seen on the sadly few occasions when the national team is within touching distance of glory, it creates a feelgood factor around the country.
Bevington said: “I know the guys who report on England, not just the print media but the broadcasters as well. There are a lot of really good journalists out there who want England to win.
Newspapers will sell more copies if England are winning. When England go out of a tournament the writers are almost looking through a window at the remaining games.
“The demands on journalists now are huge because of the 24/7 industry that football has become. I have enormous respect for them.”