Sunday, February 22, 2009

Communication Breakdown

“We’ve made a conscious effort to go out and meet people. That’s partly to promote the club, but also to hear what they have to say, making this a club that they feel a part of. I spend a lot of time walking around the city, just to get the place under my skin.”

The words of Chris Mort in November 2007. It was a refreshing thing at that time, to have a chairman meeting regularly with fan representatives, discussing where the club is and where he wants it to be. As a customer relations exercise it was perfect, and suggested those in charge knew how to keep us happy. Some might have thought it was going too far showing up down the Bigg Market to get a round in, but far better to be drinking with the chairman, than have him in Marbella calling wor lass a dog.

It wasn't to last. In June 2008 Mort stepped down as chairman and the replacement figurehead at the club was Derek Llambias as Managing Director. Before he bowed to pressure and gave an interview to the Chronicle and Journal recently, Llambias had only spoken publicly twice. He gave us some platitudes on the day he started - as an aside, they included this corker

"I firmly believe we have the right people with the right expertise, with Kevin Keegan back as manager and being fully supported by Mike Ashley and the directors, to take the Club forward again."


I don't know Llambias' definition of "fully supported", but it clearly differs from Keegan's.

The other time we heard from him was when rumours abounded that Mike Ashley wanted to sell the club, and he felt compelled to nip those stories in the bud.
“At a time when everyone at Newcastle United is working hard to prepare for the new season ahead, it is annoying that we have to continually correct inaccurate newspaper stories. Whoever is putting these stories around is clearly trying to destabilise the club and you wonder what their motives are for doing this. By putting a new management structure in place this year, by investing in new signings at first team and academy level, and by introducing cheaper tickets for our younger fans, the long-term commitment and vision for Newcastle United is there for all to see. Those actions speak louder than any words and I’m sure supporters see these stories for what they are - utter nonsense.”

Those stories may well have been utter nonsense, but as he says himself "actions speak louder than words", so let's look at each of those actions he's so proud of in retrospect:
  • Put a new management structure in place - didn't last very long did it?

  • Invest in new signings - since taking over, Mike Ashley is roughly £2M in profit on transfers.

  • Cheaper tickets - credit where it's due, cheaper tickets are available , I wonder to myself if they would be if we could manage to sell out the stadium regularly, like we used to three years back though.


Speaking even louder though has been their inaction. Rather than taking any positive action, Mike Ashley chose the 5-1 defeat by Liverpool to say
"I am the first to accept there have been times this season when you would have liked to have heard more from me direct, particularly at certain points. There have been reasons why I have not have been able to do that, but in the new year we will look to communicate with you more about what we are doing at St.James' Park, be it through the club's official website, programme and magazine as well as the wider media.”

I thought January was the new year, but towards the end of the month as another Ashley promise failed to materialise, Joe Kinnear was rolled out to let us know it would be happening later rather than sooner
“Mike is going to speak to the Press when the window shuts."

This was strange. Rather than reassure us early on that they’d be taking whatever ACTION was necessary in the window to halt our slide and guarantee Premier League survival, they chose to wait until it was too late, with the promise they would use WORDS to explain to us what we could have found out by reading a newspaper…we sold more than we bought, making money on some of our best first team players, we got no cover at left or right back, and remained short of pace in midfield. Their actions spoke volumes.

Since telling us that he understands we want to hear from him “direct”, Mike Ashley still hasn’t said a word in public. But in mid-February, Llambias spoke for all those in the board room in a four part interview in which he apologised for mis-communication and promised things would be different.
“When Chris Mort was here he was very proactive with the Press. When I came on the board, Mike and I discussed it and we basically wanted to keep a lower profile. Then within no time at all KK happened. And then it just got worse and whatever we said got worse. So we decided to keep as low a profile as possible, get on with our business plan, move forward with what we were doing with our management team and to assist whatever manager was coming in as best as possible.”

As a fan who picks the bones out of every utterance coming from the club and highlights any inconsistency I can find, I still cannot accept the excuse he provided for the deafening silence. There were 3 months of virtual silence before “KK happened”. Upon arrival, without saying a word to explain why, Llambias decided (with Ashley) to put a stop to the communication that had proven effective. What work Mort had put into creating a bond between the club and supporters, they decided it wasn’t worth working on any further. They cannot blame either the KK saga or any misrepresentation of what short statements had been made (which were taken at face value at the time) for that decision, as much as they’d like to.

However, now we’ve got through the misrepresentations in what was said, I will agree that following Keegans departure, whatever was said only make it worse. Not because communication is bad per se as they seems to believe, but because the faceless statements released via the official website were cursory, semantics arguing, excuses at best. Rather than showing strong leadership in troubled times, stepping to the fore to take the flak and ride it through with positive steps to put their plan back on track, they hid behind carefully worded lawyer speak.

I admit that I look to use what they say against them, I have an agenda, but it was far more difficult to do that when Mort ran the show because he was very personable and he always came across as being frank both in presentation and content. There was little contradiction between what he said and did that I could see – the due diligence post is as close as I’ve come.

As much as there has been a clamour for Ashley and Llambias to talk to us, I’m afraid that once it happened, to steal a phrase, they failed to find the “correct tone”. Describing some of your most loyal customers as “a small group given more credence than they deserve" displays a shocking contempt for the people paying your wages.

As does underestimating the intelligence of every customer to such a degree that you believe you can sell over £30million of first team players in six months and then claim "We are not a selling club”.

Or offering Joe Kinnear a two and a half year contract (despite his management record being second only to Ossie Ardiles in terms of failure to win points) and then claiming he’ll have us on the road to “challenge for everything within five years”.

Actions or words? I know which I think speak louder, it would be a start if the club could just get what they say and do to match. I find myself wondering if it is propaganda or if they're actually delusional enough to believe that Kinnear can set us on the path to Champions league qualification. I'm not sure which would be worse either.