When is a stakeholder not a stakeholder?

If you want a recipe for success, it's important not to leave out any vital ingredients

Last week, a group of leaders in football sent a letter to the heads of Twitter and Facebook calling for action to stop the rising tide of racist abuse directed at footballers by people using their platforms. It was a very good letter, and notable because the tone was more direct and straightforward than conversation between corporate bodies tends to be. The letter, calling clearly on the companies to “accept responsibility for preventing abuse from appearing on your platform”, was signed by chief executives from the Premier League, Football Association, Football League, Women’s Professional Game, Professional Footballers’ Association, League Managers’ Association, Professional Game Match Officials Limited and Kick it Out. 

Can you see who’s missing? 

The fans. And that’s because the fans weren’t asked. The Football Supporters’ Association has worked with all the bodies whose chief executives signed the letter to the social media platforms. So it’s not the case that the chief executives did not know who to approach. And that, unless I’ve missed something, leaves only two reasons why the fans weren’t asked. Either the CEOs thought that as the abuse came from fans it must therefore be coming from all fans. Or they just didn’t think of the fans at all. 

Neither option does much to convince observers that when the powers that be in football talk of the fans as stakeholders they really mean it. The word is used a lot when organisations want to show how inclusive they are. And it’s a good word. It indicates that the people described as stakeholders have a stake in what is being discussed. It recognises they are not just passive recipients of a product. But using the word is not enough. Because actions speak louder than words. 

Referencing stakeholders to show how inclusive you are counts for little if you forget to, or decide not to, include those you have said hold a stake when it comes to the really serious stuff. Football remembered where the fan organisations were when it wanted backing for a safe return to stadiums. It will be interesting to hear the explanation for why fans, alone among all football’s major stakeholders, were not approached this time. 

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If it was the case that the eight chiefs decided not to approach fans because they thought the fans, all of the fans, are the problem, that indicates a serious regression in attitudes. When football supporters began to organise in the 1980s by producing fanzines and arguing for more proactive organisations, one of the things we most often said we wanted to challenge was the idea that all fans were the same. At the time we had to deal with the view that because some fans were hooligans, all fans were hooligans. The issues that view caused are well-documented. 

It’s the best part of 40 years since the modern wave of supporter organisations began to challenge the prejudice that treated football fans as a single, dehumanised mass. And on the whole, despite the odd regression from what we might call a rogue stakeholder, that message seems to have been heard. So if the stance of the eight chiefs is not evidence that the game as a whole has suddenly lurched back 40 years, what we are left with is that the idea of asking the fans to sign up simply didn’t enter their heads. 

The effort to stop social media platforms becoming spaces that not only allow abuse and lies to spread freely, but also to be normalised, is one of the key challenges of our time. It is work being pursued intelligently and methodically by organisations such as the Centre for Humane Technology, which was behind the film The Social Dilemma – a must watch if you care about how people connect with each other. Sport, as the subject that provides the stickiest of content for all forms of media because of the sheer volume of popular emotion it stirs, is an important battleground in this particular culture war. So imagine how powerful it would have been to get – here comes that word again – all the stakeholders together. Involving the fan organisations would not only have strengthened the message, it would have extended it, using the example of fans making the right choice to change and if necessary isolate the fans making the wrong choice. It would also have shown some recognition that it is also fans who suffer abuse on social media.  Particularly those who have a bigger profile and particularly women. Misogyny is as rife as racism and it has also been dismissed as simply freedom of expression by the platforms when attempts have been made to call it out.  

So was the failure to involve fans prejudiced or careless? Neither choice is a great look. And sadly, it’s not the only example of when a stakeholder is not a stakeholder. 

Sunderland recently announced that supporter liaison officer Chris Waters is coming off furlough. Waters is a popular figure, and the current FSA SLO of the Year, because he is very good at his job. And yet, as an unprecedented crisis unfolded that forcibly separated the fans from the Club, the Club decided to furlough the person whose job it was to nurture that link. It led, predictably, to protests from fans. The Club’s decision is referenced, with due incredulity, in an excellent discussion about where the customer sits in organisational thinking that Mark Bradley of The Fan Experience Company has with Kevin Rye in Rye’s latest Fan Insights podcast

At Arsenal, protests also greeted the news that the Gunners’ SLO, Mark Brindle, faced the prospect of redundancy. Brindle is Arsenal through and through, and so is respected by the fans he works with. His post was up for review as part of 55 redundancies, but the Club was forced to hose the affected area down with some boilerplate reassuring phrases that mentioned “looking to improve our offer” and “duties… very important to the Club” in order to quell the backlash. It said: “Providing an effective service to Supporters’ Clubs is central to our thinking”.

But supporters themselves, it seems, are not quite so central to the thinking. If they were, the Club may have saved itself from another embarrassing public backlash – we are, after all, only just recovering from the threatened extinction of the Goonersaurus – by actually consulting its fans. In the end, Brindle’s job was saved. But it was all so easily avoidable.

There are more examples that could be cited. The common thread that runs through all of them is that fans are all too often not consulted, not included, not considered. Talk to many fan activists and they will tell you a common frustration is that clubs often, at best, see consultation as “telling us why they have already decided to do what they’ve decided to do”. So much more could be achieved by treating stakeholders as stakeholders.

It would be easy, just so demoralisingly easy, to finish this latest newsletter on a negative note. So in an effort to end on an up, let me take you to the somewhat unexpectedly sunny uplands of West Ham United. It’s safe to say that, for some years, relations between the club’s owners and its fans have not been the most positive. And yet agreement has recently been reached to establish an Independent Supporters Committee through which to stage regular discussions between the Club and its fans. The detail of the set-up owes much to the need to recognise the unique characteristics of supporter politics at the club, and credit must go particularly to Ashley Brown of the FSA for pulling together various bodies. The presence of West Ham United SLO Jake Heath, who gets the fan perspective, has also been beneficial, and the fact that both Brown and Heath are optimistic goes some way to allaying suspicions about whether Karen Brady and the Gold brothers really have become converts to the cause of proper consultation with fans. 

As always, it will take some time for things to bed in, but it will be worth keeping an eye on how this develops. There could be lessons to learn. 

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