Communications lessons from England manager Gareth Southgate
There’s always been huge expectation about the England football team.
The fact that England created the rules for the modern game has always put huge pressure on the national team manager and his players.
Tournament after tournament, the England team have disappointed or fallen short, most often after the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
Ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer, it’s fair to say that the level of expectation was not as high as for previous squads, although England’s early Group stage victories resulted in the inevitable declarations that “It’s coming home!”
But there is no doubt that Gareth Southgate has been a revelation since taking over as England coach.
Articulate as a player, Southgate also enjoyed spells as a television pundit as well as managing at club level, so he had an insight into how the media works and how to engage with them.
So what lessons can other organisations learn from how Southgate has transformed the relationship between the England team, the media and ultimately the fans?
1. Share your vision
When Southgate took over as England coach, there was a muted, almost indifferent response from media and fans alike.
Instead of an international high profile, trophy-winning coach such as Sven Goran Eriksson or Fabio Capello, or an established English manager such as Roy Hodgson, Southgate was given the role after working successfully with England youth teams.
After a solid if unspectacular role with Middlesbrough, Southgate’s appointment may have come as some surprise.
But after successfully leading the national team as caretaker, his appointment on a long contract suggested that he would be given time to shape not only the team but the structure and culture of the England squad.
In his early interviews and many since then, Southgate has talked about his long-term vision.
Some have argued that the current crop of England players are not the most talented to represent their country, but Southgate has talked about a work in progress, giving young players experience so that they can deal with expectations and the challenges of representing England not just this summer but for years to come.
Explain early on to your target audiences what you wish to achieve.
Take them on a journey, manage their expectations and share with them how you plan to get from where you are now to where you want to be.
There is no point trying to delude people about the size of the project ahead of you or make bold, unattainable promises that undermine credibility before you begin.
2. Engage with the media rather than close ranks
While all the players in the England squad are well-known to the media, getting closer to them in the context of the national team has created a collaborative rather than a ‘them-and-us’ relationship.
Some of the media have since been given the opportunity to play darts with players, building the camaraderie and mutual respect.
Remember, this England team is one of the youngest and most inexperienced in terms of international caps at the tournament.
It’s easy to be wary of journalists and there are certainly some who can be mischievous, but generally, providing open lines of communication means that they are more likely to be supportive and more likely to share your key messages to the audiences that matter most to you.
3. Deal with a crisis with calm authority
When what appeared to be the England teamsheet was photographed during one of the obligatory open training sessions, it gave the media plenty of material to speculate who would be in or out of the team for the forthcoming match.
Relations with the media have been on a knife-edge under previous England regimes and initial comments by Southgate, questioning the decision to release the photos and handing opponents a possible advantage could have undone previous good work.
But Southgate made it clear that the images were of plans for training and that he understood the need for media to report on any story that they so wished.
Equally, when there was outrage at a gun tattoo on Raheem Sterling’s calf, Southgate was quick to jump to the defence of his player, accepting Sterling’s story that it was a tribute to his late father and in no way endorsing gun violence.
It stopped the story becoming an ongoing issue for the team or the player.
Whatever the issue, while not dismissing the importance of any revelations, Southgate refuses to take umbrage at stories and has turned them into a positive, using them as an opportunity to praise the media.
Do not expect the media to be your cheerleaders by default.
Deal with a crisis or controversy quickly so that it does not provide long-term damage to your relationship with the media and thus threaten your own reputation.
Remain calm and courteous in the face of adversity rather than reacting defensively and thus giving others the opportunity to exploit your perceived weaknesses.
4. Trust your team to be your cheerleaders
Having done plenty of research on aspects of coaching beyond tactics alone, Southgate opened the doors to all players to meet the media.
In a move akin to how the NFL connect with media, every England player was made available for interview at St George’s Park ahead of the tournament for an open day.
Notably, there were no rules on what was or was not fair game to ask or discuss and the players (and therefore by design, the media) were treated like adults, capable of undertaking interviews without great scrutiny.
During one press conference, defender Danny Rose was also given free reign to talk about the mental health problems that have affected him.
Given how players have closed ranks and clammed up during previous regimes, this trust has allowed them to show their human side.
Giving your colleagues the trust and opportunity to tell their own stories can make your wider narrative even more compelling.
While figureheads are often the main focus for communications channels, as long as everyone is aligned, the more voices that speak on behalf of an organisation, the more compelling the story you are all seeking to tell.
5. Use all communications channels to get your message across
Traditional media provides great credibility for any organisation, not least the Football Association.
Fans may criticise journalists for twisting or sensationalising the truth but their perspective can provide great weight for the messages you are trying to communicate.
But owned media is also vital in this day and age.
The FA have broadcast the #LionsDenLive show available on their website and YouTube which shows the squad in training and players are filmed discussing matches.
This gives the FA the chance to control the narratives but also, given the irreverent style of the shows, provides some humour that lightens the culture surrounding the team when the increasing weight of expectation could have dampened the mood.
The fact that fans are also able to share questions with some of the team provides an extra level of engagement.
Social media and owned channels such as your website provide absolute control for the messages you want to convey.
Used well, these platforms enhance accessibility and give your audiences access to pure content that they will not be able to access elsewhere.
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