The Word According to Grunig &Hunt; Evolution of Football Clubs Comms From the Football Pink to Social Media

James Grunig & Todd Hunt devised their critically acclaimed Four Models of Public Relations back in 1984 and has been ingrained in the mind of anyone who has studied PR theory, academically or passively, ever since.

Their four models, or stages, range from elementary roles of communication in the Press Agency model, progressing to more engaging practices in the Two Way Asymmetrical and Two Way Symmetrical models.

Unbeknown to Grunig & Hunt back in 1984, the evolution throughout the framework has in many ways mirrored the journey of how professional football clubs have engaged with supporters since the the four models were established, particularly in the advent of social media.

Caption: The 1980’s saw the birth of The Four Models of PR and the height of football hooliganism

Going through some old Sunderland match-day programmes from years before I was even born, got me thinking about how the content fans consume from their own club has changed over the years, even reflecting on the early days of my own fascination with the game from the start of the 2000’s.

Given that I’ve shoehorned Grunig and Hunt into most essays I’ve written since September, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the different stages of their framework and the elements of football communications.

Here are my findings…

The Press Agency Model

The Press Agency model is communications in its most archaic form, a one-way message that may or may not hold truth and its sole purpose is to influence an audience rather than relay accurate and objective information.

The first ever match-day programme is believed to have been made for fixture played between Eton and Yale in 1873 and have seldom been unavailable to purchase at any professional game since.

Caption: Programmes have been part of many a match-day ritual for years

The innocence of a mere match-day programme may not appear to represent the deceptive nature of the Press Agency model that seems to be more attributed to the early days of Public Relations and Edward Bernay’s techniques of corporate manipulation.

However, one of the only internal communication tools football clubs had at their disposal before the birth of digital media, the match-day programme could act as a one-way communication tool to shape fan’s view of the club’s operations (of course keeping the unfavourable stuff pretty quiet) and even make excuses for poor performances on or off the pitch.

At least that’s my impression reading some old programmes from the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Public Information Model

Before the age of the internet the local press were the main means for clubs to communicate to a wider audience than their match-goers.

Caption: The Leicester Mercury back page encouraging supporters to buy tickets for the 2016 Community Shield

Relationships with local journalists were essential for football clubs, the importance of which has somewhat been diminished in the 21st century, but still play a part as local journalists still offer comment on their digital and print channels.

Traditionally this would fall under the Public Information model of Grunig & Hunt, which is still one-way communication, but generally more truthful, in the form of press releases and accurate information that has been relayed to journalists by the clubs themselves.

Fans would regularly buy regional papers for news on their team and the ‘Football Pink‘ or ‘Green ‘Un‘ on a Saturday evening to read match reports on local sides, before the days of on-demand video highlights. Many older fans see those by-gone eras as the halcyon days of football media consumption. I would tend to agree.

Caption: Ipswich’s ‘Green ‘Un’, one of several editions up and down the country that were popular with fans right up until the mid-2000’s

Two-Way Asymmetric Model

The Two-Way Asymmetric model is where there is a level of audience input and feedback involved, but this is ultimately done to benefit the organisation with less consideration for publics than the next model we will look at.

Two-way communication between club and fans is generally now done over social media, whilst emails and letters can still be exchanged these aren’t things that externals can measure.

On my observation and perhaps a cynical one at that, I see most football clubs as falling under this segment as oppose to the more collaborative and mutually beneficial Two-Way Symmetrical model. They are rarely transparent if there’s nothing in it for them.

In an attempt to find an example for this piece, I scrolled through Rangers’ Twitter timeline following their title victory and subsequent celebrations outside of Ibrox, since condemned by Nicola Sturgeon. I could not find a single message to supporters attempting to ensure safety or themselves and others in the midst of a nationwide lockdown.

Caption: Rangers found time to plug their commemorative gin but not to encourage fans to keep fellow supporters and each other safe

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame fans for celebrating a historic first title win, but it did seem somewhat irresponsible and inconsiderate towards the wider community in Glasgow to not at least find time in amongst their exultant posts, to try to influence fans into avoiding the sort of gatherings that could lead to a surge in the virus we’re all trying to quash.

Two-Way Symmetrical Model

The Two-Way Symmetrical model is public relations at is most principled and arguably truest form by its own definition. It demonstrates honest communication between organisation and publics, acting to serve both their interests mutually.

We’ve established that I don’t think football clubs interact in order to mutually benefit fans equally with the organisation (ticket prices at most grounds will tell how much they care), but there is an old fashioned way in which they can indeed categorise at least some of their communications under the Two-Way Symmetrical model. Good old in-person dialogue.

Any organisation’s social media accounts can pick and choose which posts they interact with, so one of the pertinent examples of the Two-Way Symmetric model in football is a warts and all communication method, meetings with independent supporters’ groups.

Caption: Sunderland’s Red and White Army hold regular public meetings with senior club officials

This may not be a particularly modern facet of the game and it is something that not all club’s engage in, with the potential backlash chairman, CEO’s and the likes may be subject to in the face of difficult, unfiltered interrogation from supporters.

My own club have engaged in this practice, with varying results. But if club officials can be open and honest to their supporters and want to use dialogue to benefit both parties, this can be the most effective way of doing so, albeit is more formal and timely.

Thoughts ?

So whilst some institutions may demonstrate the Two-Way Symmetric model periodically, in my opinion the vast majority communicate for the organisational advantage, with the benefit to their publics’ interests very much a secondary thought. Hence why football clubs only relay bad news when they have little option.

Caption: Promotional shot for the Inaugural season of the Premier League 1992/93

Interestingly, whilst social media and multimedia have in no doubt revolutionised the internal communication functions within football clubs, to the extent that football comms has went from a one-man job to an entire department, it doesn’t mean they have followed Grunig & Hunt’s model to the letter, if you see this as an evolutionary road-map.

Does this demonstrate that face-to-face communication will always be the most important?

Do you think social media has improved the football fan experience?

What are your thoughts?

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