September 12, 2017
We’re 19 months into the Moshiri era. In that time, we’ve seen him buy 49.9% of the club’s shares, have an option to buy another 23-24%, he’s repaired the balance sheet, changed the management team and structure of the non-playing staff, spent heavily in the transfer market, acquired Bramley Moore – the iconic dockside future home we’ve dreamed of, engaged one of the world’s leading architects to build our stadium, and we’ve European football once more.
On the face of it all good and progressive. So why is there a crisis of confidence among many Evertonians and such a feeling of unrest?
Early performances on the pitch this season haven’t helped, nor has the failure to complete the very good work of earlier in the transfer window, yet the unrest goes deeper than that in my opinion.
It’s a theme spoken about previously, but in my opinion the lack of communication from the club is a significant contributor to how many Evertonians currently feel.
It may be no surprise to hear me say that I believe communications is an essential discipline in the theory and practice of corporate leadership.
In many businesses, the value of communication is over-looked, many senior executives and board members consider communications to be a soft priority given it appears to lack well defined, tangible parameters and outcomes.
In private companies (such as Everton) where typically the board is occupied by major shareholders or those representing major shareholders the willingness to communicate is even smaller. It’s as if because there’s the absence of “public” in the description of their legal entity (as in not being a public limited company (PLC)) then the business skill of communicating is not required.
However, nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in the case of a football club with a much more complex relationship with external stakeholders (fans in ordinary language) than a usual commercial business.
Communications is a strategic instrument. If used correctly it has many benefits – it clarifies the ambitions of those in charge, it allows for accountability, measuring actual performance against stated objectives, and critically it allows (in the case of football) fans to understand the destination and the route of travel of their beloved football club.
In doing the above it removes many uncertainties, it stops the often-negative assumptions and frankly wasted energies of people wondering what an announcement means, or people (fans) chasing news which for good reasons may not be due for several months.
Two examples of this would be the “Person with significant control statement” yesterday which caused a lot of people to ask about what the major shareholder Farhad Moshiri had/had not done, and as a second example the constant desire for information on the stadium “Dan, when are the designs due?”
Now I’m not expecting the club to react to every piece of news, regulatory or otherwise or answer every social media enquiry as to the progress of the stadium but a broad communications strategy that said (for example) “Farhad Moshiri does not expect to add to his holdings before exercising his options”, or “we anticipate stadium designs to be published sometime in the 4th quarter of 2017” would go a long way to giving fans comfort and actually using their considerable energies on more constructive ways of supporting and communicating about the club.
Communications are both verbal and non-verbal. The clearest example of non-verbal communications by the club are the activities of the Everton in the Community. These activities not only produce real tangible benefits to everyone the organisation touches but pump out hugely positive messages and values associated with Everton. It is the clearest example of positive non-verbal communications I can think of, and says a huge amount, all of which is hugely beneficial and positive for both the recipients but also the club itself.
The puzzle for me is why an organisation can be so good at communicating this aspect of their activities but be so poor in overall communications, particularly the core activities that support our principal activity, football.
Let’s assume for a moment the club agreed to look at its communications strategy and decided to do something about it. What should it do?
In our podcast, Everton Business Matters, John Blain often talks about a Chief Engagement Officer whose role is much greater than communications, but ideally it would be for him to communicate in at least two different ways. (In the absence of a CCO, then you’d expect the CEO to communicate on behalf of the club and from time to time shareholders)
Firstly, an “address the nation” type speech or presentation. This would be much more significant than the Chairman’s report or CEO’s comments in the Annual Report & Accounts which by necessity are backward looking and considerably out of date by the time of publication.
It would be an annual “this is where we are, this is where we are going, this is who is going to do it and this is how we will do it“ communication which says clearly and unequivocally these are our aims on the pitch, i.e. what we hope to achieve in the coming year with the first team, with the U-23’s and with our academy This is the structure, these are the roles, and these are the people who have responsibility for each part of the operation.
Similarly, off the pitch – this is our aims, this is what we are doing – commercially, planning for the stadium, planning for the future – this is our vision both long term and what we expect to achieve in the next 12 months.
In essence, a medium to long term strategy and vision about the future of the club, broken down into near term objectives over 12 months and then longer term.
Essentially it should demonstrate that the owners and board have at least the same ambitions (hopefully grander) for the club as do the supporters.
The second element would be timely updates or responses to events as they occur throughout the season and off-season, be it progress on matters or a particular happening. Just acknowledging we are on course for the stadium, or comment around FFP and the impact or not it has on the club helps the engagement process and reduces misinformation, fear or lack of confidence.
One of the reasons often cited for lack of communication is a lack of trust, a fear that objectives stated will be used against those that perhaps don’t achieve all that is set out. Well, the fact is that supporters have expectations of their own regardless of whether the club communicates or not. My point is that through communication those expectations can be understood and managed.
The managed element is important. I don’t mean managed in the sense of playing down expectations nor hiding unwelcome news. I mean that a regular flow of information and updated when required allow expectations to be realistic, as well as keeping those in charge accountable.
The Press and media have a role in communications too. It’s a topic worth of discussion in a single article, but as has been said many times before the benefits of good media relationships are huge, not only in terms of short term news flow and information but in terms of presenting the club in the most favourable and useful (in terms of strategy) light.
Returning to trust for a second. Whilst an often-used reason for deliberately not communicating is a lack of trust, it is the opposite which is entirely true. A lack of communications definitely leads to a lack of trust, it is counter-productive and almost always negative and damaging.
In a sport that is becomingly increasingly competitive at a more rapid pace, we as Evertonians have for the first time in a generation genuinely exciting things to look forward to on and off the pitch. We are a massively improved organisation from 19 months ago, in competitive and commercial terms with a huge way still to go. We the fans would like to take that journey together with the club, but much better informed in the near and longer term about plans, ambitions and progress.
A forward-thinking club should and would engage in this process, knowing the benefits that derive from such a strategy.
Over to you, Everton.