"Some PRs don't understand what makes the story" – John Cross

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John Cross has been one of the UK’s leading sports journalists for more than 15 years, and as Chief Football Writer is an expert on the Premier League and England.

He’s just written a book entitled 'Arsene Wenger – The inside story of Arsenal under Wenger' and has seen a great deal of change in the way journalists and sports organisations interact.

What is the relationship like between national media and PRs?
The better ones are helpful, informative, open and give good access.
It’s not favouritism, but the more open and accessible a football club is, for instance, the better press they get because building relationships and becoming more informed makes a journalist more inclined to write positively.

There is an assumption sometimes that clubs are proactive and ringing journalists and it’s just not true. The majority of stories come from journalists picking up phone and getting info and then going to club PRs and perhaps getting intelligence.

It can be frustrating with some clubs when they refuse to comment on a story we put to them and then deny it the next day when a straight answer at the time would have been better all round.

What has changed since you started out?
The world of journalism and PR has changed massively since the early 1990s.

My friend Clare Tomlinson (former Arsenal Head of Communications and now Sky Sports News anchor) has joked about stopping players giving out their phone numbers when she was at the Gunners.

We had a very different relationship with players, having loads of phone numbers who we could go to directly without much input in terms of a press officer. I even used to have to ring up George Graham’s secretary to find out about the press conference schedule!

Within 10 years that has changed immeasurably with press officers marshalling the media but things have settled down over the past decade. There’s been a move away from press officers who just organising conferences to informative briefings from club PRs who are experienced enough and willing to give the club position on stories on and off record. Of course we miss the connection we used to have with players. I get on with players well and if you know them you’re more likely to be balanced – it’s human nature. 

What do you make of clubs such as Swindon Town limiting media access?
I used to work at the Swindon Advertiser and it has shocked me that the club blocked the local paper because the relationship has always been very tight and people really associate with the paper to read about the football club.

It’s incredible that a club would try and manage their own media and so disappointing.
More clubs want to put out stories to media from their own channels – diluted interviews are being fed as content for papers and that is a big concern. It becomes very sanitised and that is a big concern. The majority of clubs do their own websites and content and hold a press conference as well which encourages a fair and balanced view.

What is your relationship like with sponsors?
Some PRs don’t understand what is fair game and what makes the story. There can be a lack of understanding about how newspapers work or when a story should run – it never fails to amaze me.

There’s no point inviting print newspaper journalists to evening events for instance because of our deadlines. The newswires will run the story which we then use and there is no reason for us to plug the sponsor.

Newspapers are still the kings in terms of circulation and readership and can provide the greatest level of exposure for sponsors and there is a generation of PRs who only think of social and online when actually there is big national audience.

We do a lot of sponsor tie-ups and promotional tie-ups and the majority of the time they realise what papers want and need. But it’s so frustrating when you have an interview with a player and there is a burning issue that needs to be tackled and the sponsor wants to steer clear of it.

I remember one incident with a player who was accused of diving and we did an interview where we asked him about it. We were courteous and he spoke well about it despite not being comfortable, so he had clearly been trained about what answers to give. It was one of the rare occasions where the sponsor had copy approval and they wanted all mention of the diving taken out and went mad that I had even asked the question. 

It diluted the interview, frustrated us and left us with less of a newsworthy story, so they got less exposure than they had hoped for because the story didn’t justify as much room as it would have done.

Less than a week later the player was asked the same questions in a mixed zone after a game and gave the same answers but the headlines were less generous and of course the sponsor had not facilitated it so they got none of the exposure they would have done otherwise.

How close can you get to someone like Arsene Wenger?
I’ve been working with Arsene Wenger since he arrived at Arsenal in 1996 and people know him and yet don’t know him.

He’s a master at keeping everyone at arm’s length and maintaining a degree of mystery and he has a deliberate tactic not to give favours to one individual, providing very few one on one interviews.

In press conferences he will answer everything put to him but when it comes to personal questions he steers the agenda seamlessly back to football issues.

You have to pose challenging questions and it was challenging towards the end of Arsenal’s lean times when the club watched every penny and went out of cups to lower league opposition Blackburn and Bradford.

He says he never reads papers or sees social media but you can tell when he is in a bad mood because he’s read what is being said about him or Arsenal – as it should be at a club of Arsenal’s size and profile. 

But I get on well with him and I respect the job he has done greatly. It’s all about being fair and respectful but critical when the situation warrants it and he is strong enough to shrug it off.
In fact, when I have seen him away from press conferences, he will always stop and have a chat and he can be fun and if you spend time with him, you can’t fail but like him.

What I really like is finding out stories that show the person behind the professional such as when he told the story about making his first trip to Arsenal on the tube.

To buy 'Arsene Wenger – The inside story of Arsenal under Wenger' please click HERE