Southgate shows there is little to fear from the media

Football didn’t quite make it home. In the end the rising expectations fell flat as the England football team’s great adventure, together with a never-ending series of memes, came to an all-too-familiar end against Croatia.

But neither the team, the manager, nor individual players got a pasting in the media. On the contrary, there was widespread acknowledgement that they had surpassed expectations and had done the country proud.

In a nation that has a famously toxic relationship between its football team and its media, this is almost unheard of. Admittedly, the positivity should be seen through the lens of over-achievement on the pitch, but the positive tone was set well before the team reached its first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.

The communications approach adopted by England has been both impressive and effective. Rather than putting up barriers and being inherently suspicious of the media as with some of Southgate’s predecessors, England created an open environment, including a media open day with all players available for interview prior to the tournament, and players frequently playing pool or darts with journalists during it. This engendered a more collaborative relationship rather than an adversarial one, enabling the media to see the human side of the players and build a rapport with them.

Southgate himself is an articulate and intelligent spokesperson. He treated the media openly but remained measured in his responses. And when tensions arose around the supposed leak of a team sheet and Raheem Sterling’s tattoo, he dealt with the issues calmly rather than spitting his dummy out and putting the barriers up again.

Some business leaders could learn a lot from this approach. Like Southgate’s England, the companies and leaders that get the fairest showing from the business media are those who show a willingness to work with, rather than against, them. But many still instinctively pull up the drawbridge at the first sniff of trouble.

Of course, journalists have a duty to report news good or bad – they are no more cheerleaders for companies than they are for football teams – but their reports don’t have to be critical or unfair. Journalists need to write informative, insightful copy about companies and by building a rapport with them, helping them understand the issues facing a business and why strategic decisions are being made, a company is much more likely to see fair, balanced coverage than if it treats the media with fear, suspicion and silence.

This responsibility for nurturing a mutually beneficial relationship with the media does not just lie with the CEO. Other executives and the communications team all have an important role in telling the company’s story and communicating its values from different perspectives. Southgate achieved this by allowing his players to not only speak to journalists but also use their social media accounts, free to express themselves and show their personalities (doubtless with some cautionary reminders about their responsibilities in advance). Businesses who are good at communicating will work in a similar way, balancing guidance and training for their people with the need to trust them to use their emotional intelligence to tell their element of the story effectively.

What Southgate has shown in recent weeks is an understanding that the media can be a friendly, useful acquaintance (if not exactly a trusted friend) rather than something to be feared and avoided. England may not be bringing home the cup, but they achieved a significant communications victory that some businesses can learn much from.

Written by Ian Morris, Director

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