The Art of Starting a Dialogue

Thursday 18th December 2014 at 10:16AM

If there’s one common denominator at successful supporter engagement programmes around the country it’s TRUST. 

You can apply the most progressive techniques to obtaining feedback from fans. You can create the most representative group of supporters possible. You can ensure that the right people sit in on the meetings. You can share the outputs via multiple club communications channels and you can advertise the changes that have resulted from the dialogue you have invested in. But if trust is lacking, all will come to nought and, when I look at the wreckage of several failed attempts at supporter engagement, mutual distrust was usually the iceberg that sank the ship.

Although I’ve participated in many fan panels in recent years, the concept is still fairly new to football, given its decades-long culture of keeping fans at an arm’s length. But I can offer some guidance to clubs contemplating going down this path (as all should) in the hope that two steps forward are always followed by another two steps forward (rather than a protest outside the ground on a match day).

So where do we start?  It may seem obvious, but any investment in dialogue requires clear objectives. What do the club and, more importantly, the fans see as the benefit of working together? Is it to deal with a specific opportunity or issue (creating a better atmosphere in the stadium, for example) or is it more generally about creating better relations between the club and its supporters?

If, as is sometimes the case, the objective of the meeting is simply to give fans an opportunity to ask questions of the CEO or Chairman, there is a risk that it only ever becomes a forum for ‘holding the club to account’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, if that’s what you’re after, but you cannot expect the atmosphere in the room to foster a partnership approach to change.

Who should attend? Good question. From the club’s perspective the answer is ‘those fans we find easy to deal with’. Fair enough, but that iceberg marked ‘lack of trust’ is moving into view.  For a start, this is a game of passion, so unlike customers writing to Waitrose to complain that their Chilean Zinfandel is corked, football supporters might be guilty of some tasty language when raising issues with the club. They may even slag the club off on social media. They may even slag off individual club representatives on social media. But if they’re the link to a constituency who feel undervalued or under-represented, then we have to look beyond that.

There may even be fan groups who don’t get on with each other (sometimes because one perceives another to have undue influence over issues that affect them or that it may be perceived to have privileged access to club officials).

Regardless of ‘positions’, we have to create a forum that embraces both of these perspectives.

Clubs often fail to put themselves in the shoes of fans who, among their peers, are often seen as leaders or opinion formers. If, for example, there has been a history of mistrust and a lack of engagement over several seasons, then they’re likely to have been penning the letters to the local paper and challenging the club.

So if they’re seen to embrace dialogue with the club too hastily, this can create a decline in their profile and negatively affect their influence in the supporter community when clubs desperately need these individuals on their side. Engagement was never won through isolation.

Dialogue does not follow a clear structure. Although it will only prosper if it’s supported by clear objectives, it is, by it’s nature, more ‘free jazz’ than ‘12-bar blues’. So always be careful not to put too many constraints on the process and be equally prepared to run several meetings before a clear path forward emerges.

The number of meetings is also very important, as this can always undermine trust. If, say, you’re gathering fans to look at how pricing initiatives could influence attendance at games, then plan in sufficient meetings with supporters to be able to arrive at some conclusions before you go to press with season ticket pricing, for example. If you’ve earnestly gathered fans together to have a discussion about this and the next thing they see is something that only vaguely reflects what was discussed, man the lifeboats.

I’ve started to notice that survey fatigue is kicking in at a few clubs where, through email questionnaires, they had built up a good understanding of how fans think, what the current issues are and what could be done to address them. For clubs NEW to this process, that first survey usually gets a good response (and, to be fair, even with 250 responses from a fan base of 20,000 it could be argued that you have statistically valid results) but for clubs with a record of dialogue, it’s time to explore how else to keep one’s finger on the pulse. Social media polls, independent message boards and other forums are all valid hunting grounds, but we need to start thinking differently about how we tap into the wider supporter perspective.

Transparency is key too. Clubs must quickly convey the key points from supporter meetings and, when changes happen, clearly attribute them to supporter input. If the process of communicating results is held up by endless reviews of minutes, for example, then the lost momentum will start to infect supporter opinion, which is why I always encourage a quick post-meeting communiqué of key action points and also the development of a section on the official club website updating fans on what the dialogue is achieving (admittedly very rare still).

I think it is important that the CEO attends every meeting, not just because it shows commitment, but also because of the practical benefits. If there are going to be difficult issues to overcome, we need to know the context. Progress is much quicker when all the various supports and barriers are known and clearly set out.

The biggest barrier remains the past. The legacy of decades of looking down at football fans still sends ripples through the room that are capable of upsetting our craft. This can manifest itself in any number of ways (‘you never did this in the past so why should we believe you now?’) so if there were one thing I would urge from both clubs and supporters, it’s constancy. No genuine dialogue ever sprang from a one-off meeting. Success is all about trust. Our supporter engagement & consultation processes need to be designed around this principle.


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