What England's World Cup Run Taught Us About Communications

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As England qualified for the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia, the expectations of the nation were as low as anyone could remember. The previous national tournament had dealt them a devastating blow being knocked out by minnows Iceland and there seemed a tangible disconnect between the team and the fans.

Gareth Southgate had been appointed manager following his more high profile predecessor, Sam Allardyce, being caught on hidden cameras drinking a pint of wine and offering favours that he shouldn’t.

But during the course of the 2018 tournament things have changed.

The team progressed to the semi finals.

The relationship with the fans has improved.

And a nation has begun believing again in their national team.

So, what can we learn from Gareth Southgate about effective communications?

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Media engagement relies on relationships.

Sometimes there seems a notion that journalists are these unreachable, impersonal spectres of influence who drive the national agenda with the power of their opinionated minds.

But, journalists are people too. And they thrive on relationship.

When Sven Goran Eriksson was England manager, he managed the media in fear. He restricted access to the players and aimed to control the message.

What he learned was in PR, you can’t control the message. 

Gareth Southgate’s approach has been very different. 

He has allowed his players to talk freely: because he trusts his spokespeople.

He has engaged relationally with the media: to the point where the players and media set up a darts tournament against one another.

And he has been honest: managing expectations, but also showing his passion and drive in a measured and humble way.

The media have been supportive - to the point where, even when the team were eventually eliminated from the tournament, there was not the usual barrage of abuse and questioning of his managerial legitimacy, but rather there was a sense of pride and support that the team did well and that Southgate was the man to take them forward.

Cold sending press releases is not as effective. Build relationship. Understand what the media want, the stories they cover. Then support their work in sending content that is relevant and rich.

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Don’t be afraid of showing your personality.

In a world where every word, tweet, and statement can be analysed and counter analysed, there is often a fear in corporate communications of showing any weakness. 

This often just leads to dry, stale, “managed” messaging.

The photo that was shared more than any other on social media from the World Cup was that of Gareth Southgate consoling Carlos Bacca, the Columbian who had just missed a penalty to send England through to the next round.

Southgate has a history of missing penalties. He knew the pain. Rather than towing a corporate line, in that moment he led with his heart.

Too often we sanitise the corporate message rather than speaking to the “why” of what we are doing. The passion that got us started in the business. The drive you have to do what you do.

Yes, being clear and consistent is important in communications, but so is being compelling. What compels you to do what you do, will often compel others to join you. 

Speak from the heart.

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Building team is more effective than relying on superstars.

Historically, during England’s “golden generation” of Rooney, Owen, and Gerrard, they have been accused of being great players but an ineffective team.

At this World Cup something changed.

Many of the teams who were reliant on “world class” individuals such as Portugal with Ronaldo and Argentina with Messi, did not progress as far as they hoped.

The England squad, on the other hand, did not have as many perceived superstars - with possibly Harry Kane as an exception.

What England did have was a sense of team.

When Southgate announced his squad, there was an overwhelming sense of a nation underwhelmed. Many of the players were unknown to the general public and some had very recently played in the second tier of English football.

But what he understood was the importance of a team dynamic. The power of chemistry. 

As an employer, you may want to recruit the individual with the best CV, but that should not be at the expense of the team dynamic.