According to the magazine for the Public Relations and advertising world, PR Week, a press relations consultancy has been engaged to brief journalists on behalf of a “bid team considering a takeover approach” for LFC.
The article, which you can also view on the Brand Republic website, says Square1 Consulting is “working with a third party involved in the possible Dubai International Capital” deal.
Square1 are working alongside another agency, Brunswick, who were used in DIC’s first move for the club which they backed out of on January 31st last year after learning of the interest from Hicks and Gillett. Brunswick continue to provide services to DIC.
The PR Week story also says that the “takeover by US duo Tom Hick and George Gillett was seen in many quarters as a huge PR success.” That’s quite true of course, very few fans feeling sufficiently worried about the US duo to actually raise any real concerns. They said the right things, making promises or at least implying actions that Liverpool fans were expecting from any new owners. All that started to go wrong around the time of the Champions League final in Athens in May last year.
That was when Rafa Benítez first hinted at delays in getting transfers under-way, the plan he’d agreed with the owners not being acted upon. Soon came revelations in the Echo in a Chris Bascombe exclusive that Rafa had to lower his sights and instead of having the cash to buy the strongly-linked Samuel Eto’o he’d now have to look at strikers costing in the region of £16m-£18m instead. Diego Milito was mentioned as was Diego Forlan as just two names on a list of striking targets. Rafa was going to have to sell to buy and in the end paid a fee believed to be as low as £18m (certainly not the £26.5m usually quoted) for Fernando Torres.
It was PR that allowed the owners a little more time and trust from the fans, many falling for the £26.5m claims over Torres’ fee, many feeling that Liverpool really did have generous owners, but more and more rumours about this being far from the case continued to be leaked. In November the story came out, again from Bascombe but by now working at the News of the World, that Rafa was about to be sacked. Despite a march by thousands of Reds in support of Rafa the owners continued to be given the benefit of the doubt by many fans.
More rumours were leaking out, selective denials by Tom Hicks and Rick Parry of only some of the claims made against them allowed many of the rumours to grow legs. Then came the Tony Barrett exclusive in the Echo where Tom Hicks admitted having not only spoken to Jurgen Klinsmann about Rafa’s job, but to have also offered it to him. That admission ended any lingering support from all but the tiniest number of fans. We also learned that day thanks to Tony Barrett that DIC had indeed been involved in discussion to buy into the club, something else that had been denied before. The Kop sang “Liverpool Football Club is in the wrong hands” and George Gillett was never seen again.
Tom Hicks kept battling on with his attempts to convince the supporters he had only good intentions, but after mocking Rafa in the wake of the press conference where he was clearly distressed at learning about the Hicks and Gillett plan to sack him, and after claiming the papers had made up the story about him wanting Rafa sacked, nobody really believed him. Especially so when Gillett disappeared from view, no longer having his name included on any statements issued by his partner Hicks, despite claims they got on well with each other, and the admission of DIC interest despite past denials added more weight: Tom Hicks was perceived as a liar by fans, as many banners showed, and he could no longer rely on any support from the fans.
After this he started to use a PR agency for statements relating to the club, no doubt advised that he had to be more careful about what he admitted to.
And it now seems that the latest suitors to the Liverpool name see the importance of handling the supporters properly. We won’t be caught out again, we’re determined not to be, and a PR agency won’t catch us out either. But used properly the PR agency can help to smooth the takeover through, ensuring the truth comes out without any ambiguity or promises that can’t or won’t be kept.
All the indications at the moment are that a takeover is extremely close, although it is still unclear exactly what the details of that takeover will be, with the strong possibility that Hicks would stay on as a minority shareholder still not fully ruled out.
The Square1 agency have experience of dealing with PR for football teams over the years, including work carried out by the Holborn PR company they acquired recently. Their Square1 Sports division is headed by their sports director Paul McGoohan who was once the news editor at Sky Sports News. He said at the time Square1 Sports was set up that they have the skills required to help clubs out with their public relations: “We aim to bring the skill sets of the city to the sports business industry. Clubs with corporate issues, from financial reports to boardroom changes can come to us – and given our links to the city, we can also provide corporate and financial counsel.”
The division’s most recent big name clients have been Randy Lerner who took over at Aston Villa and Thaksin Shinawatra, once linked with a takeover at Anfield but now the owner of a rejuvenated Manchester City. Shinawatra was the subject of much negative press, which Square1 dealt with on his behalf. One example of a statement they had to issue was issued by McGoohan, who said: “Dr Thaksin Shinawatra has not been found guilty of any of the allegations made against him and as such is an innocent man. He has bought a public company in the UK and complied with UK law. In addition, he has complied with Premier League rules. He has shown his commitment to Manchester City by buying the club and investing in new players using his own money.”
McGoohan also had some interesting words on football club takeovers when the sports division was launched: “Purchasing a football club is different to acquiring any other business because of the fans and their emotional attachment to the product. Our role is predominantly about making the fans and the public understand who these guys are and what they want to achieve. Likewise it is important for the owner to understand the central part the clubs play in fans lives.”
Getting the owner to understand the importance of a club to its supporters isn’t difficult to achieve – the trick for the PR company is to make it look like the owner actually cares about this importance. And if the next owner of Liverpool doesn’t care about that importance, no PR company will find it easy to conceal for too long.