Merci Arsène – Communication lessons from Arsène Wenger

So after 22 years, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has announced that he is leaving the club at the end of the season.

For most other clubs, three FA Cup wins in the past four years would be seen as a success.

But such are the expectations that Wenger had set, failing to compete for the Premier League and Champions League created discord that saw many fans calling for change, particularly this season when Arsenal have fallen so far behind the challengers at the top of the table.

I had the pleasure of working with Wenger when I wrote the Arsenal website and club magazine and then as a reporter covering them during my time with The Guardian and Sunday Telegraph.

I also met him on a number of occasions at sports industry events, often chatting to him at length about the Arsenal team and football in general. His passion for the beautiful game was such that he always had time to talk.

Always genial, always courteous, Wenger transformed English football, bringing a new approach to diet and fitness and paving the way for English football to become the truly cosmopolitan competition is has become.

Facing regular press conferences with journalists hungry for stories, Wenger has been a pass-master at managing the media and maintaining a positive image despite criticism over results.

So what can we learn from how Le Professeur dealt with the media?

1.    Think in headlines
When you have to give as many press conferences as Wenger has done, you know that to keep the media interested, you have to have something interesting to say.

There’s a reason why people in the public eye who work with the media tend to get an easier run than those who are always on the defensive.

I used to see some journalists try to catch him out with random or obscure questions, prompting that wry smile of his and then a thoughtful answer indicative of his extensive general knowledge.

So often Wenger would offer insights or interpretations of football matters that moved the dial and set the agenda.

2.    Be loyal in the face of a crisis
When results did not go as planned, when players misbehaved, when he needed to sell top players and buy bargains while remaining competitive, Wenger never once complained.

It’s no surprise that so many of his former players have described Wenger as a father figure and why his tenure endured for so long.

When the spotlight is on you and the pressure mounts, it is easy to look for excuses, for scapegoats to blame to divert attention.

Wenger always stayed loyal to his players, defending them even if it sometimes prompted the “I did not see it” response that some would scoff at.

And when his transfer funds were limited, he never once complained about the constraints he was under nor sought to point the finger at those holding the purse strings.

However much pressure he was under, Wenger would always face the media, skipping his duties only when he was unwell.

3.    Be authentic
Ask anyone who has interviewed Wenger and they will tell you that he has always been genial and courteous. 

There may have been the odd occasion where he got irritated – but after thousands of interviews he deserves some leeway.

There are so many stories coming out of letters Wenger has written to fans or his support for those suffering from the after-effects at Chernobyl or the Grenfell disaster, all without fanfare.

Perhaps his style was best summed up by BBC journalist Richard Conway who said: “(The) thing that struck me about Wenger in his press conference was how he listened to every question, how he thought about his answers. He had dignity and class. And that will be missed.”

With his Arsenal career coming to an end, the uncertainty and the discord can give way to the warm send-off Wenger deserves, honouring the career of a man whose impact on football will never be forgotten.