HR & Management

Five things we can learn from Manchester United’s PR own goal

6 min read

25 May 2016

Following Louis Van Gaal's sacking at Manchester United, Sam Mohr, senior account executive at Jargon PR, took a look at the club's press communication failures.

Image: Shutterstock

When Louis Van Gaal was removed from the manager’s position at Manchester United, few were surprised. It was one of the worst kept secrets that the Dutchman was being sacked – and it doesn’t take a PR expert to recognise the communications strategy of the football club has been a long way from premier.

With the impending arrival of Jose Mourinho, here are five things to learn from the club’s catalogue of communication errors.

(1) Correct positioning

Football clubs are businesses like any other and management changes are to be expected. Like in the wider business world, positioning changes correctly is key. Staff and stakeholders need to be onboard whoever is in charge.

The error Manchester United have made is not properly positioning Van Gaal’s departure. It was well known that Van Gaal saw this Premier League role as his last job, and he had no intention of extending his contract beyond 2017. Therefore, had the leadership positioned his departure as part of their long term strategy, the club would ensure a much more positive reaction, reducing criticism for its handling of the situation.

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With Mourinho available this summer, the football club could have said thank you to Van Gaal and explained his replacement as a means to ensure the success of the club in the next three, four or five years.

Positioning a change in management or operations as strategic or long term is basic PR and doesn’t require a complex program to implement.

(2) Keep control

Some newspapers ran the unfortunate storyline that Van Gaal was informed of his removal by his wife, who heard about it in the press. He was also apparently then phoned by Jose Mourinho, all before speaking to the football club in person. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that someone at United told the press, with the news widely reported as a certainty within hours of the final whistle at Wembley.

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Organisations must as a priority keep control of communications strategies. Fervent gossip on the same level that we’ve seen at Manchester United risks damaging an organisation’s reputation, by appearing unprofessional and disorganised.

Read on to find out how the club could have avoided some speculation.

(3) Avoid speculation

One trait that seems to impact football clubs in general is ongoing speculation. A few bad results and the manager’s job can very quickly come under scrutiny. Van Gaal famously said to the press “[you] already sacked me for six months.” Negative stories around an organisation or speculation on it’s overall future is bad for staff morale and lowers the confidence of stakeholders. 

We saw this in Manchester United’s share price, rising by two per cent once it was officially announced that Van Gaal would depart. Had an announcement around Van Gaal’s future or a vote of confidence, even if temporary, been made earlier, it is possible a lot of the speculation could have been avoided.

(4) Focus on positives

It has taken until Van Gaal’s sacking for executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to praise his contribution, particularly for promoting youth into the first team. Failing to talk about positive aspects of a brand and praising management, especially when it is being questioned can risk allowing more negativity to foster amongst stakeholders and staff.

(5) Learn from past mistakes

When David Moyes was sacked in the spring of 2013, the football club admitted his departure could have been handled better, however, it seems management has failed to learn from these mistakes. Moyes was also sacked in the press before he’d spoken to the club’s executives. 

Once is bad, but twice looks amature, particularly as both follow the impressively crafted PR around Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.

Getting communications right requires effective and organised professionals. Ultimately, the nature of Van Gaal’s departure isn’t going to harm the Manchester United brand too much in the future. Throughout a difficult season, the commercial arm has still been able maintain business as usual, securing record profits of £18.6m in the three months to December 2015. However, few at the club would claim the last few months have been a communications success.

It will be interesting to see how the club positions Jose Mourinho’s arrival and his first few months in the job, and also whether he’ll face similar levels of speculation and questioning if results don’t come to him as expected. The case has provided a useful example to businesses in how not to manage a crisis. In most cases, organisations don’t know when they’re going to be thrust into the limelight, so having an effective comms strategy in place is critical.

Sam Mohr is senior account executive at Jargon PR.

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