Sir Alex Ferguson’s club-wide media blackout, imposed after Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool at the weekend and the Scot’s recent FA charge for improper conduct, will prove counter-productive both to the man and the organisation he represents. In this de facto certainty lies. After all, failure to communicate not only robs supporters of an essential link with the team but allows a coverage vacuum to grow in which the media controls the agenda.
Routinely obsessed with the coverage he garners, Ferguson has repeatedly cancelled his Friday morning press conferences this season and has now taken to boycotting the club’s own TV channel MUTV too. Yet the Scot’s tirades at the media are now routine – with more than half a dozen journalists banned from attending conferences at Carrington – and he has made little effort to build relationships with the media.
In Ferguson’s place hacks required to fill column inches and broadcast hours will seek out alternate editorial angles. They’re unlikely to offer the positive coverage Ferguson so desperately seeks.
Of course, somebody should have reminded David Gill about the current media blackout, with the United chief executive appearing in front of a Parliamentary Select Committee today – in full glare of the cameras – to extol the virtues of the reclusive Glazer family.
Aside from the now routine claim that United’s huge debt makes no difference to the club’s transfer market spending or long-term security, Gill also claimed – bizarrely – that the club is excellent at communicating with supporters.
“As an executive team, on behalf of ourselves and the club do have extensive communications with our fans,” claimed Gill in front of MPs today.
“We take those elements of fan communication very seriously. We look at ways of comforting them that their club is being run properly. We understand the importance of communication, we don’t take it lightly.”
Indeed, there is no little irony that Gill should claim in Parliament that the Glazers have “delegated Alex Ferguson” to talk to the fans in the week United’s 69-year-old Scot is refusing to do precisely that. Perhaps it is little wonder United’s manager is taking his cue from the owners – the Glazers have given one interview in more than five years of ownership.
However, Gill said the club will never talk to groups opposed to the Glazer regime, including the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST).
“We don’t communicate with certain fan groups,” added the 53-year-old ceo.
“If we’re going to be castigated for not speaking with one or two groups who have very specific agendas, then so be it. Unless they change their situation I do not see a reason to sit down and talk to them.
“They have a devout aim to change the ownership. They’re [fans’ groups] well-organised but they’re very domestic. We’ve done studies that show we have 333 million followers from around the world. We get thousands of emails, we got 36,000 phone calls last month.
“A lot of the fans want to ensure that there’s money to be spent on the team, that they come to a safe, modern stadia, that [United] play exciting, attractive football. And I think we’ve delivered on those accounts.”
However, Gill forgets that the supposed 300 million plus fans outside of the noisy “domestic” contingent contribute almost nothing to United’s financial status. The summer tour nets around £5 million per annum but overseas casual fans spend little else. Around one third of United’s income comes from match days at Old Trafford, another third from UK Sky TV subscribers and the other third from other media rights and commercial sponsorship.
And while United’s global fan base contributes indirectly to the club attracting new sponsors the global media also plays an important part in communicating the club’s message. One that the club cannot influence if it refuses to engage.
More to the point, fans can argue that press coverage of the club ‘makes no difference on the pitch’ but it clearly affects both the manager’s thinking and his actions. Ferguson’s aim may well be to foster the now clichéd ‘siege mentality’ but if the media ban is extended for any length of time and players cannot fulfil sponsors’ commitments the Scot will surely hear about it.
However, it seems unlikely Ferguson will hold his weekly press conference this Friday, although time will tell whether the Scot speaks with ITV ahead of United’s FA Cup fifth round clash with Arsenal on Saturday. The United manager is also required to hold a press conference 24 hours ahead of the club’s fixture with Marseille next week.
By which time the FA may well have handed down a four match touchline ban to the 69-year-old for questioning referee Martin Atkinson’s “fairness” – it’s a subject on which we’re unlikely to hear from Ferguson or anybody else at the club again.
In the meantime the United manager has been widely lampooned for his stance in boycotting the media and criticised for his comments about referees. It can hardly be the type of coverage the Scot seeks.