Manchester United, the world’s largest and most financially successful football club, has come under fire in recent weeks for tightening its public relations policy, particularly in regard to direct player/media relations. In real-world terms, this basically means that as a club, Manchester United are restricting, or completely eradicating their players’ social media activity.
Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher all had high profile and regularly active Twitter accounts, and whilst nothing particularly revelatory was gleaned from these by the worlds media, they were nevertheless shut down.
Manchester United even went as far as drafting a statement that simply read: “The club wishes to make it clear that no Manchester United players maintain personal profiles on social networking websites. Fans encountering any web pages purporting to be written by United players should treat them with extreme scepticism.”
This only added to the suspicion that the club itself had acted to restrict its own players freewill. Of course, at this point it must be asked – What spooked Manchester United enough to carry out this rather extreme action? The answer to that lies with Sunderland United and England Striker, Darren Bent. In July 2009, Bent was negotiating a transfer from his then-club Tottenham Hotspur to Sunderland United. During these negotiations, Bent used his Twitter account to criticise Tottenham’s chairman. Daniel Levy for delaying the process, as well as openly tweeting to his followers the exact details of the negotiations. Bent eventually signed for £10million.
Larger clubs, however, took note. Manchester United’s management chose to take the action of effectively gagging all of its players, by insisting that they delete their various official Twitter and Facebook profiles so that it could handle effectively control its PR message.
But maybe they’ve missed a trick here. From a business perspective the club may have done the right thing, rather than let an individual potentially (even unwittingly) reveal the clubs inner workings and secrets. They have taken the matter into their own hands. To the outside world, this move appears like an overreaction and seems intrusive, as it is taking away an individuals’ right to express their opinion by denying them access to that platform. The club should have instead taken over and maintained these accounts, or simply vetted them. That way to, the outside world, their presence is maintained, but it is managed internally.
Some would say that this could be seen as misleading, but I would say that it is simply good business. If anything, the recent events surrounding Chelsea and England defender John Terry have shown that football and indeed all high profile sports teams now more than ever need to manage the PR presence of their stars, because letting them manage their own affairs, could seriously damage their own reputation.