Footballer turned pundit Gary Neville has called on players to sack their 'comms managers' and take personal control of social media after a series of high-profile gaffes blamed on outsourcing to third parties. But Neville's characteristically no-nonsense stance, argues sports marketer Amar Singh, is yet another example of the critical role of the social media manager being undervalued.
Social media took over the world in less than a generation, transforming industries, creating entirely new ones and becoming the most important interface between brands and consumers.
Football, despite being awash with cash, is still playing catch up.
The rapid advancement of technology fuelled by our human instinct to communicate, means that, what was once seen as an exciting new distribution channel for a website, has become something far bigger.
It’s a battleground for engagement, a dynamic virtual shop front and a multi-channel content platform all at the same time.
Leveraging the potential of social media has become vital for football clubs and yes, football players, who have become brands in themselves.
A footballer’s career, on average, lasts less than a decade, giving players a limited window to truly build their brand and communicate directly to their fans.
When identifying talent to work with on lucrative partnerships, brands will often look at the footballer’s social media output to identify a good fit and ensure that there is nothing remotely controversial going out. Players with well curated social media platforms which connect to a highly engaged audience tend to get more brand partnerships than those without.
At MKTG Sport + Entertainment, we have connected sponsors with some of the biggest stars in the game to supercharge league and club partnerships, leveraging the reach and engagement of the players’ own fan communities.
Tellingly, digital and social metric tools have overtaken traditional media brand exposure and value measurements for analysing the return on sponsorships, according to our 2021 Frontier report – a global survey or more than 600 industry professionals.
Put simply, it has never been more important to get it right on social media.
Not least because the FA’s eagle-eyed social media police are scrutinising and ready to pounce on any breach of Rule E3 which, rather vaguely, insists that those working in the game must ‘at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.’
Open to interpretation, you might say.
All that considered, it’s vital that footballers have professional support in managing their social media and calls to ditch the PR managers and ‘be authentic’ feel naïve and out of touch.
This debate came to the fore when Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes posted an apology on social media after missing a late penalty at Old Trafford.
The apology, which by most measures was excessive, led to Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville to call for the cull.
Writing on Twitter, Neville said: "They need to sack their PR people, speak with some authenticity and get on with it. They've all got these comms managers that are creating personalities that don't exist."
Generally insightful and erudite, Neville has become an influential voice in football.
When he speaks about issues ranging from racism in society to the perceived failings of government to VAR, people listen.
However, to expect elite footballers to become social media experts overnight while playing in one of the most competitive leagues in world football and all that entails, is expecting too much.
It also grossly underestimates the role of social media management and undervalues the people in our sector who run accounts of high interest and scrutiny.
To be a social media manager today means you invariably need to have skills that span content production, creative ideation, journalism, strategy and data analysis.
All while keeping your finger on the pulse of the latest trends and being PR savvy with a sound knowledge of media and IP law.
At football clubs, these employees are affectionately dubbed ‘admins’ by fans.
They are the ultimate Swiss-army knives in the marcomms toolbox yet they are often overworked and underpaid.
But as long as social media continues to grow in importance, the value placed on their skill set will only grow.
Footballers are signed by clubs for what they do on the training ground and the football pitch – not for their mastery of Instagram’s branded content tool or their ability to find the right words when a legend passes.
Social media is where footballers can come undone without proper support.
So let’s give those social media ‘admins’ the respect - and salaries - they deserve.
The role they play has never been more important than it is today.
Amar Singh is head of content & communications at MKTG Sport + Entertainment