Control freaks

The internet’s infinite size has led to a huge rise in the number of people writing about football, but as the game occupies more and more of cyberspace the clubs and FAs are frantically trying to control the message and quash negative headlines. Ian Plenderleith examines how the thought police are getting on

Complete control
In January, the German press said Bayern Munich had put together a list of 20 “relevant” media outlets, and that they were planning to grant information and interview access only to those they thought fit to cover the club. Bayern were presumably thinking that if they could keep a close eye on who was reporting on the team, they could better spin the stories and curb any criticism. It’s unlikely that there were many independent webzines on the list.

While it’s understandable that any club would want to weed out lazy hacks lurking in the press box for a better view and a free bratwurst, the dangers of such a lock-out approach are obvious. If you strictly limit access, those reporters who are allowed in are too worried about losing their credentials to offend the club. Meanwhile, coverage of the team is bland enough to keep the team happy, if not necessarily the consuming public.

“Everyone knows what the Bayern management understands when they use the term ‘fair journalists’,” wrote the Handelsblatt’s Thomas Knüwer on his blog. “That is, journalists who represent the opinions of the Bayern management. The goal of this measure is clear: to switch off criticism.”

This is nothing new. Former Burnley chairman Bob Lord would ban any journalist who offended him from Turf Moor, and he’s not the only megalomaniac in the game’s history to solve the problem of a critical voice through dictatorial measures. The difficulty for internet outlets is that they don’t have the clout of a local or national paper to back them up, and so appealing against bans is all but impossible.

Media relations in the cyber age
It’s not just at club level that message control is becoming the norm. Ever since Pete Davies told the inside story of England’s Italia 90 campaign in All Played Out, national teams, too, have been paranoid about media access.

Farayi Mungazi of the BBC World Service wrote in his online column from the Africa Cup of Nations about the difficulties of talking to teams: “Nigeria and Cameroon seem to have adopted an air of superiority that causes them to treat the media almost with contempt. For reasons best known to them, the Super Eagles and the Indomitable Lions are refusing to talk to journalists, and all requests for interviews are rejected out of hand.”

Sudan were no better, he added, and some of their players had ended up in a fracas with a frustrated Egyptian camera crew. His experiences mirror those of football journalists all over the world. You travel and make the effort to be in the right place at the right time, only to find yourself thwarted by protective “media relations” people. Calls are ignored, or excuses are given that players who spend at most half a day in training are too busy.

The German daily Tageszeitung reported that journalists planning to cover the national team at Euro 2008 had been told by the FA they will have access to players only at the media centre in “interview rooms”. In reality, Andreas Rüttenauer wrote, this means that up to 20 journalists interview a player at the same time. A tabloid asks how long a player spends on his Playstation, a local paper asks if he’s aware how much the folks in his home town are rooting for him. But somehow there’s never time for a critical question.

And yet, Rüttenauer continued, players with so little time to talk to journalists have a day free to cut an ad for sponsors Mercedes Benz. But so there are no hard feelings, the car maker invites everyone to a “Media-Kickoff” press party on the eve of the tournament.

How does this work on the web? The US Soccer Federation’s site is packed with interactive content, and at training camps players are followed around by Federation media employees with video cameras for action shots and interviews. On team blogs players say what a fantastic experience training camp is. And should a player say he’s unhappy that the coach keeps playing him out of position, no problem – we’ll just edit that part out. In January a number of journalists who wanted to talk to players during a training camp were told it would be difficult because the squad were too busy. But you could always go and check out the official site if you wanted to hear from, say, midfielder Ricardo Clark, taking fans’ questions on the blog. What’s his favourite food? “Roti and curry chicken.” Wow.

First came the match programme. Then came teams with their own TV channels. Now more and more clubs, leagues and football associations are wising up to this internet thing. Remember in the first few years when they hadn’t a clue what to do with the web apart from sell stuff? Of late, it has become another, more efficient way to handle PR and, in much the same way that corporations deflect awkward questions from investigative journalists, they can answer a query with: “You’ll find all the information you need at our homepage. Other than that we have nothing to add.”

The unique case: Major League Soccer
In the early years of Major League Soccer after it kicked off in 1996, teams’ press boxes were filled with unpaid internet journalists, because there were few major newspapers allocating any resources to cover the sport. For many teams struggling to attract the attention of the mainstream press more focused on the usual US major league sports, online coverage from enthusiasts represented a significant slice of the nascent league’s publicity.

That began to change last year when David Beckham was signed by LA Galaxy. Not only was there a huge increase in column inches from the newspapers that had so often ignored the league in the past, but the official MLS website started registering double its usual number of hits. Again, this seemed to trigger a new thinking – why should we lose potential readers to other sites when we can have them for ourselves? This season, many of the league’s teams look set to withdraw credentials from websites that do not employ paid staff.

That’s a logical progression for a league looking to mature and nurture more professional coverage. On the other hand, some press boxes are going to be at least half-empty for all the match days when Beckham’s not in town. Maybe that’s a price the league is happy to pay if it means making more advertising revenue out of its own official site. As struggling sites are denied access, becomes the most consistently reliable portal for information, albeit one that will not offer a surfeit of criticism or serious analysis.

If it’s not already happening in other leagues and at other teams, watch out for this trend across the board. More and more clubs are going to funnel users to their own site. This is our information, these are our players, paid by us, and therefore we deserve to make the ad revenue every time they speak.

Hope in big mouths and giant egos
Also worth taking into account is the instant nature of internet news. In an age in which we carry around hand-held devices that can provide us with updates 24 hours a day, few online journalists are prepared to put in the work required to write lengthy, investigative pieces.

Why bother? Even though web pages can stay around for years, the lifespan of internet stories is even shorter than those in the daily print media, leaving us nostalgic for the time when articles survived at least long enough to become fish-and-chip wrapping. Online, a story can move down a page and be out of date in hours, even minutes.

Rather than research a potential corruption scandal that might take months of hard work (and then quickly fall off the front of a website), the norm is to try to chase rumours and gossip and get the scoop, claim bragging rights for breaking a story, and then rush off to the next hot point of speculation. It’s instant gratification news, and the reader immediately wants more. The story and the coverage suffer from a lack of depth – considered analysis and lengthy exposure pieces have rarely found a comfortable home on the internet.

This, again, is great news for all those PR directors learning to control the message via stage-managed press conferences, round-table interviews and the official club site. It’s so much easier to keep a tight rein on news when the market demand for online information is chiefly restricted to scores, stats, team news, transfer moves, and soundbite quotes from Arsène and Alex having a dig at each other.

However, there is an upside, too. As governments and corporations have frequently discovered, spin can only do a limited job in covering up the truth. There are still journalists around with the energy and the resources to chase stories, and who don’t want to be friends with the team and the players. There will always be discontented players ready to grab the phone and call a journalist, and there are always inside sources at clubs ready to leak unofficial information for their own reasons.

Going back to Bayern Munich, the Tageszeitung ventured that the list of 20 restricted publications may not have been drawn up to silence the critical press (because Bayern have always restricted access to critical journalists), but rather to keep better control of what it called the club’s “temperamental staff”, in particular president Franz Beckenbauer and general manager Uli Hoeness. Both have become renowned down the years for opening their mouths and holding forth at the flick of a reporter’s microphone switch.

For the new scheme to work, said the paper, Bayern would first have to replace Beckenbauer and Hoeness. Thankfully for those looking beyond Pravda-style coverage, there will always be enough monstrous egos in football who cannot be tamed by a public relations directive.

From WSC 253 March 2008