The word on ‘Barcagate’, the dark side of social media in football. Barcelona’s PR fightback and Messi brand enjoys boost

As soon as I read the breaking news that much-maligned former Barcelona president, Josep Bartomeu, chief executive, Oscar Grau and head of legal services, Roman Gomez Ponti had been arrested on Sunday on suspicion of corruption after links to a social media campaign designed to tarnish the reputation of several club legends, the subject matter for this week’s Word of Football was pretty easy to decide.

When the news broke I couldn’t help but think of the potential fall out from a communications and reputational perspective. What is the damage of Barcagate to the integrity of the club’s social media presence? What does this do FC Barcelona’s reputation of being a bastion of Catalonian values? Will this ultimately benefit the Messi brand?

I think I best have a go at tackling these questions…

What is Barcagate?

First things first, an explanation as to why Bartomeu and co are currently behind bars. The term Barcagate (yes, the ‘gate’ suffix is so very original) was first coined in February 2020, when an investigation began into a contract dating back to 2017, between FC Barcelona and I3 Ventures, a self-proclaimed data analytics and behavioral consultancy.

Caption: Josep Bartomeu resigned from the club back in October

The company is said to have been recruited to execute a campaign disparaging club legends on social media such as: Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Xavi and Pep Guardiola, whilst painting Bartomeu and his regime in a favourable light. This would predominantly be done in the form of ‘trolls’ or ‘bots’.

Barca’s PR response

It is extremely unlikely that Barcelona’s own communications function had any involvement in the back-door deal with I3, but that won’t stop them having to bear the brunt of the damaging sequence of events.

The club’s official accounts responded to the arrests by posting a brief two paragraph release on Monday, which of course for legal reasons, couldn’t detail too much.

With the biggest fan base of any club worldwide and an eye-watering 37.5 million Twitter followers, Barca’s PR function had the unenviable task of representing the club in the midst of it’s biggest ever communications crisis.

The message in the days proceeding across their social media platforms was clear, unity in the face of adversity.

Social media accounts updated cover photos to their players celebrating as a collective, the use of the word ‘we’ has been consistent throughout and notably, images posted almost exclusively featured multiple players, evoking feelings of togetherness.

A Messi Situation

I had always saw Messi as a bit of an innocent figure, small in frame and an almost childlike outlook on the game, but to many his whiter than white image was somewhat soiled by accusations of tax evasion back in 2017.

However, his long-standing spat with Bartomeu, which prompted Messi to state his desire to leave the club, I think now may have given the greatest player of our generation a new image.

Caption: Messi’s feud with Bartomeu may have bought him some brand equity

In the aftermath of Barcagate in my view, Messi has gone from relative identity homelessness after the federal investigation into his own finances, to a strong force of morality in the face of a tyrannic and corrupt regime, a revolutionary perhaps, although a very affluent revolutionary figure at that. Finally a persona befitting of his beard!

Will brand Messi capitalise on this new dimension to the his personality with a potential move on the horizon?

What next for Barca?

There is no getting away from it, the Barcagate scandal is ultimately horrendous for the club’s reputation and their PR function will be at the heart of the recovery.

A club who is the supposed bastion of Catalonia’s collective values of community and pride, has demonstrated a contempt for committed club servants and back-stabbery, more closely associated with fierce rivals, Real Madrid.

Caption: The Nou Camp, full of locals and tourists alike on a regular match day

Barcelona have fans in every corner of the globe and a hell of a lot of them, so to rebuild trust their communications strategy must incorporate the eventual winner of next week’s presidential election as a key figure and ensure they are the proverbial store front.

Hopefully a more collaborative approach and more transparency communicated to their fans will mend a fractured relationship by reiterating their shared values and prevent any clandestine arrangements with social media companies. You would think given the state of affairs the new leader will be all to happy to curry favour with the supporters from the get-go, embracing the part of the club that can ultimately help them do that.

In any case, lets hope this contemptuous use of social media from football clubs and governing bodies is consigned to the dustbin of history.

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