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Three Lions and a waistcoat in the wardrobe*

It’s just a few weeks old but the new football season is already creating headlines. Mourinho is being mauled. ‘Pep’ is being applauded. Fans are being fickle.

It’s the same old, same old. But wait, something is different.

We’re in love with the national team again. And, in particular, the manager.

There are head coaches in the Premier League, Championship and Leagues One and Two under more pressure having won just one of their past five matches. But not our Gareth.

There may have been a variety of results, including four wins and three defeats,  but the waist-coated wizard certainly charmed the nation in Russia.

The Three Lions take to the pitch again on Saturday (8 September) for their first competitive game since the World Cup, a Nations League opener against illustrious Spain. It will be interesting to see if the love-in continues.

So, how did Southgate achieve one of the biggest image turnarounds of 2018 so far?

From a communications perspective, what is he getting right that his predecessors got so miserably wrong?

Firstly, he had a bit of luck. England won a penalty shoot-out! Thirty years of hurt banished by the boot of Eric Jeremy Edgar Dier.

Lady Luck smiled again when the team did enough to get out of their group to the semi-final.

The nation was chuffed. Transport for London was chuff-chuffed. It renamed Southgate tube station ‘Gareth Southgate’. And inevitably, Marks & Spencer ran out of waistcoats…

But the core of his success lay in how he, ahem, tackled the media. Unlike previous managers who restricted access, he invited them in.

He was proactive, not defensive. He saw it as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

A press ‘speed-dating’ session with the players was a hat-trick of a success.

  • Goal 1) It generated a raft of good stories for the journalists.
  • Goal 2) As a team exercise the players were able to relax instead of being the only one in the spotlight at a pressure-filled pre-match briefing.
  • Goal 3) Through the coverage, England fans felt closer to their team.

When controversy threatened over Raheem Stirling’s gun tattoo his support for him was unequivocal. By addressing it into the context of the young striker’s background, and that of other squad members, he defused the situation. It was the verbal equivalent of a ‘Cruyff turn’.

“I think the personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable,” said Southgate. “People often highlight the issues, the faults of all of the squad, but for so many of them it’s incredible they’ve got to the point they have. They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated, if you are focused. Raheem embodies that. Nothing is given to you in life, you have to fight all the way.”

Southgate trusted the players with social media, appreciating that with the team a long way from home it was a great way for supporters to stay in touch.

And he was honest about performances, comfortable with admitting ‘the other team were better than us’, not just trotting out ‘the positives’.

The result of all of this was a transformation in how we, as England supporters, viewed the team, what we expected from them and how we reacted to them. It was a public relations masterclass.

Speaking shortly after the final game, Southgate spoke about the importance of having reconnected with the fans.

He said: “It’s huge. That is the biggest part of playing for your national team. You represent the whole nation, you want them (the fans) to feel engaged in it, you want everybody to enjoy it and enjoy the experience and feel part of it.”

If you are looking for an honest opinion from people who understand how to work with the media and engage with your audiences, call Gary Hebblethwaite at HROC on 0121 454 9707, email gary.hebblethwaite@hroc.co.uk. He does a nice line in waistcoats too!

*With apologies to CS Lewis

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