Posted on Wed 11th Jul, 2018 in: Influence by Phil Reed
England’s progress through the FIFA World Cup has had the country buzzing, but for those of us in communications the transformation off the field has been just as impressive as the transformation on it.
In particular, the changes Gareth Southgate has made to how the England squad deals with the media have been subtle but profound, and I have no doubt they will survive far beyond this tournament.
Out has gone the traditional ‘us and them’ approach, where coaching staff and players treat journalists with suspicion and only speak to them when they’re forced to. And when they do speak, it’s usually cliché-ridden.
By contrast, journalists embedded with the England squad for this World Cup have had much greater access to the players – even famously having darts matches with them. That’s helped foster greater trust and understanding between the squad and the Fourth Estate, and the result is players who are clearly more relaxed and open when being interviewed.
Southgate’s own dealings with the media reflect that. He appears relaxed, but controlled. His principles and values have been clear to all, and that has won him respect from journalists, players and fans alike. He is undoubtedly the most popular England manager among supporters since Terry Venables.
Managing England can never be like managing a football club, but Southgate has achieved the most club-like atmosphere the national squad has ever had. Footballers can sometimes have egos as big as their bank balances, but in this tournament they are giving the impression they consider each other to be equal. A real band of brothers, it seems.
And England fans have bought into that. They no longer care whether a particular player comes from their club’s most hated rivals – he plays for England, that’s all that matters.
And it’s the man in the waistcoat who must take a huge amount of credit for a carefully crafted communications strategy that has seemingly achieved the impossible: uniting players, fans and the media.
That started before the World Cup Finals even began. Southgate managed to be positive, encouraging players and fans to enjoy the experience rather than predicting how far the team could go. It meant we went to Russia with the lowest expectations before a major tournament that I can recall. That’s not an accident, that’s clever communications.
A few years ago, I interviewed Gareth Southgate for a live Twitter Q&A on behalf of The Football Pools. At the time, he was coach of the England under-21s and also an ambassador for the Pools.
He handled every question – whether from me or directly from fans – with aplomb. His playing career, that penalty miss, his managerial experiences and his ambitions. Nothing was off limits, but at the same time he was in control, never in danger of giving an off-the-cuff response that could come back to haunt him. His answers were honest and interesting, but not headline-making (not that we were trying to create headlines!). That’s a really difficult balance to strike.
Writing this on the day of the semi-final against Croatia, I’m not going to predict whether England’s World Cup adventure will end in unthinkable glory or predictable what-could-have-been disappointment.
But what I can confidently predict is that the legacy of Gareth Southgate’s communications revolution will last well beyond the next five days.